Results of Complaint Hearing, Dr. Richard Wollert v. The Seattle Times

Updated June 4, 2013 with a correction from The Seattle Times and June 16 after public, online voting ended.

The Washington News Council held a public hearing on a formal complaint against The Seattle Times from Dr. Richard Wollert, a Vancouver psychologist on June 1, 2013 at Town Hall Seattle.

The Council’s 10-member Hearings Board, chaired by Karen Seinfeld, former Chief Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, split their votes on the questions that were considered at the hearing. One question was not voted on, at Dr. Wollert’s request. Read the press release with vote results, and here are the audience vote results from the day of the hearing.

Remote viewers were invited to watch the recorded coverage from TVW, with this link and to participate by voting online, through June 16.

Here are the summary public vote results from the online ballot, in which 51 people participated, and please also see the public comments submitted along with the online votes.

Crosscut.com published coverage of the hearing in an article, “Independent panel: Seattle Times unfair to psychologist,” on June 3. GeekWire published two articles in advance of the hearing, “News Council to webcast hearing on Seattle Times series, sparking debate over public vote,” on May 31 and “Letter: Seattle Times objects to News Council’s ‘quasi-judicial spectacle’ and online vote,” on June 1. The hearing was also blogged by journalist and forensic psychologist Karen Franklin, PhD in “Newspaper unfairly maligned forensic psychologist, news council holds.”

Finally, Dr. Wollert sent this letter to the WNC expressing his “appreciation for the Washington News Council’s exhaustive and diligent adjudication.”

Former Judge Karen Seinfeld leads the WNC Hearings Board

The complaint concerned a series of stories, “Price of Protection,” that appeared in January, 2012.

All complainant and Seattle Times documentation and exhibits can be downloaded as one PDF file, here. The file includes a Table of Contents linking to references internal and external to the file. David Boardman, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of The Seattle Times, submitted this letter, which was also read aloud during the hearing. Please contact the Washington News Council if you have any difficulties or questions.

David Boardman issued the following correction on June 4th, 2013:

To The Washington News Council and Dr. Richard Wollert:

We at The Seattle Times apologize for any misunderstanding we may have created about Dr. Wollert’s status with Washington State University, Vancouver.  While the university’s director of communications had told us that the title “Research Professor of Psychology” was inaccurate and that WSU had “no personnel paperwork” for Dr. Wollert, the school has since located records indicating that he has an adjunct, non-teaching affiliation. WSU says a more accurate title for Dr. Wollert would include the word “Adjunct,” but they do not believe he was intentionally misleading. Nor were we. We regret the mistake, as does WSU.

Here is the list of Hearings Board members of the Washington News Council. (NOTE: Everett Billingslea, Pedro Celis, Obafemi Idowu, and Martin Neeb were unable to attend. John Hamer recused himself.)

NOTE: Members of the audience were invited to vote along with the WNC’s Hearings Board, either on paper ballots or online. They were also able to vote through June 16 with an online ballot. We requested names, email addresses, and affiliation on ballots to discourage anonymous votes.

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Vitae Foundation v. KUOW – Video of the hearing

On Saturday March 31st, 2012, The Washington News Council had a hearing on the Vitae Foundation v. KUOW case involving a story on Vitae’s youroptions.com website. You can read about the results of the case and watch the hearing in its entirety below. Also feel free to check out some of the “press” surrounding the case.

Part 1 – Opening Statements

Part 2 – Questioning

Part 3 – Questioning (continued)

Part 4 – Discussion

Part 5 – Discussion (continued)

National coverage from CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan
National coverage by Mike Janssen of Current.org
National coverage by Valerie Richardson of The Washington Times
Local coverage from Mark Griswold of Sound Politics
Local coverage from NW Daily Marker’s Bryan Myrick
Local coverage from PubliCola’s Erica Barnett

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Washington News Council upholds complaints from Leschi School Community and IUOE Local 609 against KIRO7 Eyewitness News

The Washington News Council held a hearing on Saturday, June 16, from 9 am to noon at Town Hall (downstairs) to consider multiple complaints against KIRO7 Eyewitness News. After hearing detailed presentations from the complainants, the WNC’s Hearings Board voted to uphold the complaints almost unanimously.

NOTE: You can watch the original KIRO story here. You can also watch a full video of the News Council hearing itself, thanks to TVW.

See coverage on this story from The Stranger, (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4) Crosscut, The Seattle Weekly (Part 1 and Part 2), Seattle Schools Community Forum, NW Daily Marker (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) as well as the special feature from imediaethics.org

Chris Halsne (left) on KIRO7, talking about Chester Harris (right). Click the image to visit the KIRO story in question. No representatives from KIRO attended the hearing, although they were invited to come. Media participation is voluntary.

The complaints concerned two [CORRECTION: actually, three] stories that aired on May 10-11 about an African-American custodian at Leschi Elementary School, Chester Harris. The stories alleged that Harris had “manhandled” or “bullied” children at the school. They also questioned Harris’ past history, which included several arrests but only one conviction.

However, after the stories aired the Leschi School principal, staff, teachers, parents and International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 609, which represents custodians and other school support staff, defended Harris and criticized the KIRO stories. They flooded KIRO with phone calls and emails, contending that the stories were inaccurate, unfair, sensationalized and unethical. They noted that Harris was merely trying to break up a potential fight between two boys, and asked that the stories be retracted and removed from KIRO’s website, which did not occur. Not satisfied with the response from KIRO7, they turned to the Washington News Council and begin filing formal written complaints, plus signing the WNC waiver form pledging not to sue KIRO7 for defamation, as we require.

At the hearing, which was open to the public and the media, WNC President John Hamer welcomed the crowd and briefly described the mission and programs of the News Council, and thanked TVW for filming the hearing for broadcast statewide and posting on the TVW website. Hearings Board Chair Karen Seinfeld explained the hearing schedule and WNC procedures. WNC Hearings Board members then introduced themselves.

Panel members were: John Hamer, Chuck Rehberg, John Knowlton, David Schaefer, Steve Boyer, Eddie Reed, Sandy Schoolfield, Ted Van Dyk, and Stephen Silha. All are current or emeritus members of the WNC’s Board of Directors. Seven worked as professional journalists for many years. Four are past presidents of the WNC’s Board.

Videos of two of the KIRO stories were then shown on a big screen, with help from Jacob Caggiano, WNC communications strategist. [NOTE: The third story was not available for viewing; it had never been placed on KIRO's website. A copy has been requested.]

To begin the hearing testimony, presentations were made by Mike McBee, recording and corresponding secretary for the IUOE, Local 609; Teresa Stout, administrative secretary at Leschi Elementary School; and Laura McMahon, mother of a Leschi Elementary School student. Dozens of IUOE union members, Leschi staff and teachers, and parents of Leschi students attended the event. Many, including Principal Cashel Toner, wore Leschi School sweatshirts to show their solidarity. Custodian Chester Harris also attended, with his son, Brandon.

After the complainants’ statements, WNC Hearings Board members asked questions to get more detail and clarify issues. They then discussed the stories and allegations openly, in what Chair Seinfeld described as “a peek into the jury room.” Finally, after brief closing statements by the complainants, the panel voted on several questions. [NOTE: WNC President and Executive Director John Hamer participated in the discussion but did not vote, explaining that he had expressed strong opinions about KIRO7 and Chris Halsne in the past and thus could be perceived as being biased.] Votes were collected and counted by Kathy Schrier, WNC executive assistant, with help from Teresa Hunt, former WNC executive assistant.

WNC HEARINGS BOARD FINAL VOTES

1. Did the KIRO7 Eyewitness News stories of May 10 and 11, 2012, accurately describe the actions of custodian Chester Harris when it contended he was “manhandling” or “bullying” students at Leschi Elementary School and that he “grabbed” a student without cause? VOTE: 8 No, 0 Yes.

2. Did KIRO7′s use of a hidden camera to film Leschi Elementary School students without obtaining permission from the principal, administration or parents violate the privacy of the students or put some students at potential risk? VOTE: 7 Yes, 1 did not vote.

3. Should the KIRO7 story about Chester Harris have included comments from Leschi School officials noting that a previous charge against him by one of the station’s primary sources was found to be false and groundless after thorough investigation? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

4. Should the KIRO7 story have included comments from school officials noting that another of the station’s primary sources has a restraining order against her from coming onto the Leschi Elementary School grounds? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

5. Was the KIRO7 story’s report that “little has been done” in response to previous complaints a fair characterization of the actions by the Leschi School staff and Seattle Public Schools? VOTE: 8 No, 0 Yes.

6. Did KIRO7 delete comments from Leschi community members from its website that were critical of its May 10 story and defended Chester Harris? VOTE: 7 Yes, 1 did not vote.

7. Did KIRO7′s May 11 story, an interview with the mother of the boy who was allegedly “grabbed,” sufficiently offset any unfairness in the May 10 and [earlier] May 11 stories? VOTE: 8 No, 0 Yes.

8. Did KIRO7′S story [stories] unfairly damage the reputations of:

a) Chester Harris? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

b) the Leschi School Community? VOTE: 8 Yes, 0 No.

c) Seattle Public Schools? VOTE: 5 Yes, 3 No.

d) the IUOE, Local 609? VOTE: 3 Yes, 5 No.

9. Does KIRO7 have any obligation, under generally accepted media-ethics codes, to:

a) Retract its stories? VOTE: 4 Yes, 4 did not vote.

b) Remove the stories from its website? VOTE: 4 Yes, 4 did not vote.

c) Air a follow-up story setting the record straight? VOTE: 3 Yes, 5 did not vote.

d) Apologize to all those whose reputations were damaged? VOTE: 4 Yes, 4 did not vote.

e) All of the above? VOTE: 7 Yes, 1 did not vote.

f) None of the above? VOTE: 0 votes Yes or No.

Members of the audience were also given ballots and invited to vote. A total of 40 ballots were received. Not all voters voted on every question. (Members of the public were also invited to vote and comment online. Voting was open until June 30; results are posted below.)

AUDIENCE VOTES ON JUNE 16:

1.Yes 0, No 39
2.Yes 38, No 1
3.Yes 39, No 0
4.Yes 36, No 3
5.Yes 0, No 38
6.Yes 37, No 2
7.Yes 2, No 36
8.a) Yes 39, No 0 b) Yes 38, No 1 c) Yes 35, No 2 d)Yes 35, No 0
9.a) 0 b) 1 c) 5 d) 2 e) 33 f) 0

We also invited members of the public who were not able to attend the June 16 hearing to vote online on the same questions. More than half of the 45 who voted online were not connected to the school, the union, or the media. Again, not everyone voted on every question. Here are the results of these votes:

ONLINE VOTES FROM JUNE 16-30:

1.Yes 2, No 40

2.Yes 40, No 2

3.Yes 43, No 2

4.Yes 43, No 1

5.Yes 3, No 41

6.Yes 35, No 0

7.Yes 4, No 35

8.a) Yes 41, b) Yes 39, c) Yes 33, d) Yes 23

9.a) 17 b) 17 c) 18 d) 17 e) 39 f) 2

BACKGROUND

The Washington News Council first received a formal written complaint on May 14 from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 609, which represents Harris and other staff in Seattle Public Schools (see their letter to KIRO, summary of the case, and WNC complaint form). The WNC also received numerous individual complaints from the Leschi School administration (see their letter to KIRO), staff and teachers, followed by complaints from many individual parents, and finally from the Leschi PTA. The number of complaints totaled 15 [UPDATE: 16] – which is the largest number of complaints against any stories in the WNC’s history. After reviewing the complaints, and deciding that they raised “serious questions of journalistic performance and ethics,” the WNC accepted them for its process. The first step was to notify KIRO that the complaints had been received and accepted.

The complaints were hand-delivered to KIRO’s front desk on May 25, addressed to Todd Mokhtari, news director. [NOTE: Mokhtari was then still employed by KIRO but subsequently left for another job in Los Angeles.] An addendum including the PTA’s complaint and a list of requests to KIRO were hand-delivered on May 31. KIRO was asked to respond to the complainants and to the WNC by June 1. However, KIRO did not respond to the WNC’s phone calls, emails or written letters.

Many parents and teachers also expressed concern because KIRO did not get permission to film students whose faces are clearly visible in the broadcasts. Some families had domestic-violence issues, so showing students’ faces on TV put them at risk, complainants said.

KIRO also had deleted negative comments about the story from its website, upsetting parents and teachers who had commented online. Several complainants noted that KIRO relied on sources who had previous conflicts with school administrators, and relied on sources from members of the same family though presented them as being from two separate families.

WNC hearings are not a legal proceeding, but an open public discussion of media ethics and performance. There are no sanctions for the news media other than publicity. Media participation in the WNC’s process is entirely voluntary, but under News Council guidelines, hearings will proceed with or without the media organization’s attendance. Their non-participation does not prejudice the Hearings Board’s votes. A table with KIRO’s name on it was available in case the station’s representatives decided to attend. They did not.

The entire hearing was filmed by TVW and may be viewed at tvw.org. It was also aired on TVW stations statewide, and is available on DVD. It will be used in high-school and college journalism classes statewide as a case study in media performance and ethics. If KIRO decides to respond to the hearing results in any way, their response will be posted on the WNC’s website and added to any instructional materials used in classes. We cordially invite KIRO and Cox Media Group executives to respond, by phone, email, written letter or on the air.

You can see the complete packet of complaint materials, a total 26 different documents regarding the case. Please call the WNC office at 206.262.9793 with any questions.

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Complaint against KUOW largely upheld at WNC hearing

Watch the hearing video in its entirety
National coverage from CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan
National coverage by Mike Janssen of Current.org
National coverage by Valerie Richardson of The Washington Times
Local coverage from Mark Griswold of Sound Politics
Local coverage from NW Daily Marker’s Bryan Myrick
Local coverage from PubliCola’s Erica Barnett

The Washington News Council (WNC) held a three-hour public hearing Saturday, March 31, at the University of Washington’s Communications Building on a complaint by the Vitae Caring Foundation against KUOW 94.9 FM Public Radio in Seattle.

Pia de Solenni represented the Vitae Foundation and Guy Nelson, News Director of KUOW spoke for the radio station. The hearing was filmed by UWTV and the WNC. A link to the full video will be posted soon on this website.

WNC Hearings Board members voted on six questions relating to the complaint. The full questions, and the Council’s votes, follow.

  1. Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or CareNet for comment before airing the April 13, 2011, news story?
    YES – 11 votes; NO – 0 votes
  2. Did KUOW have a responsibility to give equal airtime to both sides, Vitae Foundation as well as Planned Parenthood, in a news story about Vitae’s advertising campaign?
    YES – 5 votes; NO – 3 votes; ABSTAIN – 3 votes
  3. Did KUOW’s story accurately characterize the abortion information that was accessible on the YourOptions.com website?
    YES – 1 vote; NO – 8 votes; ABSTAIN – 2 votes
  4. Did the original KUOW news story contain substantive errors worthy of public, on-air corrections and/or clarifications?
    YES – 10 votes; NO – 0 votes; ABSTAIN – 1 vote
  5. Did the follow-up interview by Guy Nelson with Debbie Stokes, posted on KUOW’s website on Sept. 30, 2011, sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original story?
    YES – 4 votes; NO – 6 votes; ABSTAIN – 1 vote
  6. Did KUOW have any responsibility to provide Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original news story aired?
    YES – 1 vote; NO – 10 votes
Bill Gates Sr and Pia de Solenni

Bill Gates Sr. has a chat with Vitae Caring Foundation's Pia de Solenni after the hearing

Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander presided, sitting in for WNC Hearings Board Chair Judge Karen Seinfeld. The WNC Hearings Board included current WNC Board Members Scott Forslund, John Hamer, Martin Neeb and Shannon Myers, plus Emeritus Members Steve Boyer, Bill Gates Sr., Walt Howe, John Knowlton, Charles Rehberg, David Schaefer and Chris Villiers.

“It was an extremely thoughtful and frank discussion about media accuracy, fairness and ethics,” said John Hamer, President and Executive Director of the WNC. “We were very pleased that KUOW fully participated in our process, and appreciative that the Vitae Foundation came to the News Council for recourse. This is what the WNC is all about.”

Pia de Solenni of Vitae issued the following statement after the hearing: “The Washington News Council provided a wonderful opportunity for Vitae to make its case and to demonstrate that KUOW had in fact run a news piece about Vitae that violated KUOW’s own code of ethics. Vitae contacted KUOW within 24 hours of the original story last April; but attempts to rectify the errors in the story were delayed by KUOW, both then and after the informal mediation meeting in July. While an outlet such as KUOW, an NPR affiliate, should have a level of professionalism that would have precluded the original piece from even airing, much less allowing the inaccuracies to stand uncorrected, the WNC offered a public forum in which a consensus was arrived at that KUOW had acted in a less than responsible manner. At the end of the day, this is not about which side of the abortion debate one happens to stand on, but about the accountability of news outlets that is absolutely essential in a free and democratic society.”

Guy Nelson of KUOW issued this statement: “KUOW was glad to participate in the WNC Hearing process on March 31, 2012. We were given the opportunity to clearly state our position and answer any questions from the WNC Board members. At the end of the hearing, I stated that KUOW has indeed met the stipulations of the WNC proposed resolution put forth in August 2011, and I asked the board members for comment. None of the board members spoke in disagreement. [Editor's Note: Some disagreed.] KUOW will consider further coverage of the issue of pregnancy care centers as it becomes important to our listeners.”

The 11-member Hearings Board agreed with Vitae on some of the six questions under consideration, and sided with KUOW on others. Board members had the option to abstain from voting for any reason.

The Board voted 11-0 that KUOW did have a “journalistic responsibility” to contact Vitae and/or two related organizations before airing its story on April 13, 2011. Nelson said the station’s reporter tried to contact CareNet, a related organization, but calls were not returned.

The Board also agreed with Vitae, 10-0, with 1 abstention, that the story contained “substantive errors” worthy of on-air corrections or clarifications. The station made some corrections and clarifications, but only on its website and not on the air.

The Board voted 8-1, with 2 abstentions, that KUOW’s story did not “accurately characterize” abortion information that was accessible on a Vitae-sponsored website.

However, the Board voted 10-1 that KUOW did not have “any responsibility to provide Vitae additional on-air coverage” after the original story aired. Panel members were divided 5-3, with 3 abstentions, on whether KUOW had a responsibility to give “equal airtime” to both sides. They voted 6-4, with 1 abstention, that a follow-up interview with Vitae posted on KUOW’s website did not “sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original story.”

The questions were worded by members of the WNC’s Executive and Complaints Committees over the past several weeks, in an effort to focus on the key issues in the complaint.

The hearing began with presentations by De Solenni and Nelson, followed by rebuttal statements from each. The WNC Board members then asked questions of each side. After a break, the hearing reconvened for open discussion among Board members, with follow-up question for clarifications by the two parties as needed. Vitae and KUOW each made brief closing statements.

The Hearings Board members voted on written ballots and then confirmed their votes on each question by a show of hands.

Members of the audience, including students, were also given written ballots and asked to vote on the six questions. Those results were tabulated after the hearing. They were:

  1. Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or CareNet for comment before airing the April 13, 2011, news story?
    • Students: YES – 6 votes; NO – 0 votes
    • Other Attendees: YES – 4 votes; NO – 0 votes
  2. Did KUOW have a responsibility to give equal airtime to both sides, Vitae Foundation as well as Planned Parenthood, in a news story about Vitae’s advertising campaign?
    • Students: YES – 4 votes; NO – 2 votes
    • Other Attendees: YES – 2 votes; NO – 2 votes
  3. Did KUOW’s story accurately characterize the abortion information that was accessible on the YourOptions.com website?
    • Students: YES – 1 votes; NO – 4 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 0 votes; NO – 3 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
  4. Did the original KUOW news story contain substantive errors worthy of public, on-air corrections and/or clarifications?
    • Students: YES – 3 votes; NO – 1 votes; ABSTAIN 2 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 2 votes; NO – 0 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
  5. Did the follow-up interview by Guy Nelson with Debbie Stokes, posted on KUOW’s website on Sept. 30, 2011, sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original story?
    • Students: YES – 4 votes; NO – 0 votes; ABSTAIN 2 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 1 votes; NO – 3 votes
  6. Did KUOW have any responsibility to provide Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original news story aired?
    • Students: YES – 1 votes; NO – 4 votes; ABSTAIN 1 vote
    • Other Attendees: YES – 2 votes; NO – 2 votes

The Washington News Council would like to thank Pia de Solenni and Guy Nelson for participating in our complaint and hearing process. Media participation in WNC proceedings is entirely voluntary.

We’d also like to thank all those who attended. We invite follow-up comments and suggestions on our complaint and hearing process, which we will be thoroughly reviewing in the months ahead, as we have done regularly in years past.

The Washington News Council’s decisions carry no legal weight, but we believe our process of discussing media accuracy, balance and ethics in an open forum is valuable for the public, the press and democracy. If you agree, disagree, or just want to talk, we’d love to hear from you.

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WNC To Hold Hearing on Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW Complaint

***UPDATE*** we now have the hearing video and full set of documents involved with the complaint as a downloadable PDF. We also have national coverage by The Washington Times and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ombudsman. Plus local coverage in Sound Politics and the Northwest Daily Marker.

The Washington News Council’s Board of Directors has set a date for a hearing on a formal written complaint from the Vitae Foundation against KUOW 94.9 FM concerning a story that aired April 13, 2011.

The hearing will be Saturday, March 31, 2012, from 9 am-noon, at the University of Washington’s Communication Department, Room 120. It is open to the public.

You can download a PDF collection here to read the basic complaint and initial correspondence between Vitae and KUOW.

WNC Hearings Board Chair Karen Seinfeld presiding over the Sue Rahr v. Seattle Post-Intelligencer case

Karen Seinfeld, Chair of the WNC Hearings Board and former Chief Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, will preside at the hearing. (UPDATE 3/16/12: Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander will be presiding in Judge Seinfeld’s place at the hearing.)

The WNC Hearings Board will be comprised of current and former WNC Board Members, including Martin Neeb, Scott Forslund, Shannon Myers, Bill Gates Sr., Steve Boyer, John Knowlton, Erik Lacitis, Charles Rehberg, David Schaefer, Paula Selis, Chris Villiers and Walt Howe.

The WNC recently received two grants from the Gates Foundation and Microsoft for 2012 operating expenses.

To see how a WNC hearing works, here is a link to a video and background information of a 2006 hearing in the Sheriff Sue Rahr vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer complaint, held at Town Hall Seattle.

(The P-I chose not to participate in the hearing, which is their right as media participation is voluntary. They posted a 17-page written response on their website, much of which was read into the record by Judge Seinfeld at the hearing. Had they attended, they would have had full opportunity to “stand by their stories” in public, respond to questions from the Council, and make their case in an open forum.)

The WNC received the Vitae Foundation’s formal written complaint on June 9, 2011, and the Council’s Board of Directors accepted it for our process after careful review. The WNC’s Board unanimously agreed that the complaint raised “serious questions of journalistic performance or ethics,” which is our main criterion for acceptance. The Board takes no position on the merits of a complaint at that stage, however.

We notified both sides that the complaint had been accepted and began a 30-day resolution period, encouraging both Vitae and KUOW to seek a compromise resolution. WNC convened a meeting on July 14, 2011, at the WNC office with Guy Nelson, News Director of KUOW and Pia de Solenni, representing the Vitae Foundation. The resolution period was extended for another 30 days, and extended again through the end of the calendar year. Both sides were urged to continue seeking a compromise.

Following WNC’s three-part recommendation of a proposed compromise resolution, Guy Nelson did conduct a brief telephone interview with Debbie Stokes (CORRECTION: An earlier version identified her as “Debbie Nelson.” We regret the error.) of the Vitae Foundation on Sept. 30, 2011, and posted the transcript on the station’s website. However, the station did not acknowledge that the original story was incomplete and misleading, as they had conceded privately. Nor did they do an on-air story, which was part of the proposed compromise. Nelson said they would “seriously consider” doing a follow-up on-air story, which was part of our proposed compromise, but set no timetable.

The WNC tried through 2011 to mediate Vitae’s complaint, hoping that a satisfactory compromise resolution could be reached. WNC Board Members believed that a resolution was possible. However, in January 2012 it became clear that resolution was unlikely. More than six months had passed — far exceeding the WNC’s normal 30-day resolution period — and there had been little progress.

Under the WNC’s Complaint and Hearing Procedures guidelines, if the complainant is not “satisfied with the news outlet’s proposed resolution to the complaint,” a hearing date to air the issues is scheduled. Vitae was not satisfied with KUOW’s response and therefore requested a hearing. The WNC’s Board, after careful deliberation, agreed to set a hearing date.

A hearing is not a trial, but an open discussion of journalistic standards, which is healthy and helpful for both sides — and for the general public. WNC has asked both parties to submit final written statements by March 10 that include “any new information obtained or agreements reached during the process of trying to resolve the complaint.”

WNC’s Complaints Committee will phrase questions for the Council to consider at the hearing, identifying “which actions by the news outlet allegedly violated standards of accuracy, fairness and/or journalistic ethics.” Final wording of the questions will be shared with both parties and made public at least 10 days prior to the hearing.

One resource the WNC may use at the hearing is National Public Radio’s newly revised Ethics Handbook, which was just released last week.

WNC’s guidelines also state: “Parties may continue to try to resolve the complaint prior to a hearing, but if they do not reach a resolution before the day of the hearing, the hearing will proceed.” If the complaint is resolved to both KUOW and Vitae’s satisfaction by March 30, the hearing will be cancelled.

For further information about the complaint or questions about WNC’s process, contact:

John Hamer (206.262.9793)
President and Executive Director
Washington News Council
1201 1st Ave. South, #331
Seattle, WA 98134

8:30 a.m. – Doors open to Room 120, U.W. Communications Building, to public and news media. (Open at 8 a.m. to WNC Hearings Board)

9:00 a.m. – WNC President John Hamer welcomes attendees,
makes brief remarks about WNC complaint & hearing process.

9:05 a.m. – Hearings Board Chair Gerry Alexander calls hearing to order, asks all Board members to introduce themselves

9:10 a.m. – Opening Statement (15 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

9:25 a.m. – Opening Statement (15 minutes) by KUOW

9:40 a.m. – Rebuttal Statement (5 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

9:45 a.m. – Rebuttal Statement (5 minutes) by KUOW

9:50-10:30 a.m. – Questions (40 minutes) by WNC Hearings Board

10:30-10:45 a.m. – Break

10:45-11:30 a.m. – Discussion (45 minutes) by WNC Hearings Board members (questions of Vitae and KUOW only to clarify issues)

11:30 a.m. – Chair Alexander asks if either party wants a brief recess to reconsider positions or eliminate questions. If so, action is taken.

11:35 a.m. – Closing Statement (2 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

11:37 a.m. – Closing Statement (2 minutes) by KUOW

11:40 a.m. – WNC Hearings Board votes on written ballots, which are counted by WNC staff. Vote results announced by Chair Alexander.
Hearings Board members confirm their votes by show of hands.

12:00 p.m. – Hearing is adjourned by Chair Alexander.

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Sam Reed Stood Up to KIRO7′s Media Malpractice

Secretary of State Sam Reed, who announced his retirement recently, is being hailed for standing up for transparency, accessibility and openness in government — and justifiably so.

Reed received the Washington Coalition for Open Government’s coveted James Madison Award last week in recognition of his work. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a member of WCOG’s advisory committee but had no role in the Reed award.]

The awards breakfast just happened to fall on International Media Ethics Day, sponsored by the Center for International Media Ethics .

That struck me as highly ironic, because Reed brought a complaint to the Washington News Council three years ago for some of the most unethical media behavior I have seen in more than 40 years as a journalist, media critic and news-council president.

Don’t take my word for it. Read what happened and make up your own mind.

As part of a national CBS-affiliate series of stories on voter fraud, KIRO7 ran two stories in the fall of 2008, shortly before Election Day. The first story, which ran on Oct. 15, 2008, alleged that thousands of felons had been issued ballots and many had already voted, although felons are not supposed to have voting rights. KIRO “investigative” reporter Chris Halsne interviewed a woman who supposedly was a convicted felon but said she had voted anyway. The second story, which ran on Nov. 3, 2008, alleged that more than 100 dead voters were still on Washington’s active voter rolls, with 15 of them actually casting “ghost” ballots. On her front porch, Halsne interviewed the widow of a man who supposedly had “voted” although he’d been dead since 1996. You can watch both stories below as will as read the transcripts (October 15th story, November 3rd story)

However, both stories contained egregious factual errors, including these:

  1. The “felon” was not a felon. She had been convicted only of a misdemeanor, so she never lost her right to vote. KIRO failed to doublecheck that simple fact.
  2. The “dead” voter was not dead. The deceased man’s son, who has the same name, had voted. KIRO had confused the two men and ignored the widow’s statement to that effect.

Reed and his staff had tried to make KIRO aware of these facts before the stories aired, but to no avail. After the stories aired, Reed’s office was deluged with angry phone calls and emails from citizens who had watched KIRO and believed what they saw on TV. Reed protested to KIRO, but the station “stood by its stories.”

So Reed filed a written complaint (page 1 & page 2) in December 2008 with the Washington News Council. He also signed our waiver form pledging not to sue KIRO, which we require of all complainants.

In his complaint, Reed declared that two KIRO stories were “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory, and unfair.” He said the stories “wrongly damaged” his office and “failed to include balancing facts or information.” In a 10-page attached letter to the WNC and cc’d to KIRO, Reed wrote:

“[W]e were distressed when Chris Halsne, KIRO 7 Eyewitness News Investigative Reporter, aired two election-related news stories that fell far short of the most basic standards of journalism for accuracy, balance and fairness. This occurred despite our repeated efforts to correct some of his assumptions and methodology and errors before he aired his reports. To have someone purposely proceed with incorrect and misleading information after all of this was just unconscionable and had the negative effect of undermining trust and confidence in our elections process.”

The News Council accepted Reed’s complaint for our process and hand-delivered it to KIRO on Dec. 31, 2008. Under our guidelines, we asked for a written response from KIRO within 10 days. KIRO did not respond and never returned repeated calls or emails.

However, in early January 2009 KIRO General Manager Eric Lerner called Reed’s office to schedule a face-to-face meeting. Lerner, News Director Todd Mokhtari, Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne, and Producer Bill Benson drove to Olympia on Jan. 21, 2009. At that meeting, Reed and his staff documented the serious inaccuracies in Halsne’s two stories.

According to Dave Ammons, Reed’s communications director and former Associated Press political writer and columnist in Olympia, the KIRO delegation listened, but then declared that they would not run corrections or clarifications, nor would they remove the stories from the KIRO website.

Reed and state Elections Director Nick Handy were stunned, according to Ammons. In an email to KIRO, Reed said: “We continue to believe that, at the least, KIRO should remove these stories from the KIRO website. Whether KIRO chooses to take other action is a matter to be determined by KIRO’s own journalistic standards.”

Incredibly, according to Reed and Ammons, the KIRO managers then offered to remove the stories if Reed would agree not to inform the News Council or the public. [Italics mine.] To his credit, Reed refused that unethical request. KIRO later removed the stories from its website without notifying Reed or the News Council. However, Reed’s office and the WNC had taped the two stories. We put them on our website, where they remain available for viewing.

The News Council then began preparing to hold a public hearing, to be broadcast statewide by TVW, at which the WNC board would publicly discuss and vote on the merits of the complaint. That’s our standard procedure when serious complaints cannot be resolved, and we’ve held several of them over the years.

However, on Feb. 17, Sam Reed asked that the hearing not go forward. He wrote:

“After much careful consideration, we at the Secretary of State’s Office have reluctantly decided not to pursue our complaint against KIRO-TV to the full hearing stage.

“We remain convinced that we presented a compelling argument, both in our written Washington News Council submission and in direct conversations with KIRO-TV management and staff, that significant errors in fact and in tone were made in two special reports by reporter Chris Halsne….

“We asked for clarification, for corrections, and for the incorrect and overblown stories to be taken down from the KIRO website, and got zero acknowledgement that anything was amiss or that the journalistic standards required more than a dismissive brush-off of the state’s chief elections officer….

“After several conversations as part of the News Council negotiating period, KIRO eventually agreed to pull down their stories from the Web site if we would muzzle ourselves and not inform the News Council of the nature of this accommodation. This we cannot agree to, since this leaves KIRO offering very little and conceding nothing.

“At the same time, we weary of this frustrating battle and the countless man-hours devoted to researching chapter and verse of this sorry episode, and we see little value in continuing to bang our head against the wall, knowing that KIRO will boycott the proceedings and will not acknowledge errors in fact and in tone, much less fix the problem. A News Council finding in our favor would not change the dynamic; properly, in a nation that so values the First Amendment, the council cannot order KIRO to do anything….

“We close by expressing our sincere thanks to the Council…for accepting our complaint and for professionalism in walking with us through the process, including the most recent negotiating period with KIRO. It is through no fault of the Council…that we have decided to suspend our complaint.”

The News Council reluctantly accepted Reed’s decision not to proceed with a hearing. However, the WNC then invited the public to participate in an unprecedented “Citizens Online News Council” to help judge KIRO’s journalistic ethics and performance. No news council in the world (and there are dozens of them, most members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe) had ever done that before. We called it a “virtual hearing.”

The KIRO stories, Reed’s complaint and letter, and key questions for discussion were posted on our website. Members of the public were invited to view the stories, read the complaint, and “vote” on several issues regarding the KIRO stories that the full News Council would have considered had this case gone to a hearing. You can read the full list of the questions and total votes HERE.

The voting deadline was April 30, 2009, during national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. (Although inexplicably, the head of the SPJ’s national ethics committee objected to the virtual hearing. You can read his reasons, and our response, HERE.)

KIRO got hammered. The votes were nearly all highly critical of KIRO and upheld Reed’s complaint (see vote results and comments). Of  all those who voted online, only a few defended KIRO. Most voters added critical comments.

As president and executive director of the Washington News Council, I still find this case one of the most shocking examples of unprofessional, irresponsible journalism that I have ever seen.  KIRO even got criticized by The Stranger and earned a “Dart” in Columbia Journalism Review.

KIRO played fast and loose with the facts, disregarding the truth. They refused to set the record straight even after being confronted with incontrovertible evidence that they were wrong. Then they tried to “bury” the stories by sneaking them off their website without telling anyone or admitting any errors. Yikes.

A recent national survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found public trust in the news media at about its lowest level ever. Stories like KIRO’s are part of the reason for that.

Kudos to Sam Reed for having the courage to stand up to KIRO. More public officials and individual citizens who are damaged by shoddy news reporting should do the same. Otherwise, bad journalists will keep committing media malpractice — which hurts journalism, the public and democracy.

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WNC Responds to Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee

WNC Responds to Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) national Ethics Committee issued a statement on May 8 criticizing the Washington News Council’s “virtual hearing” by a Citizens Online News Council. The committee’s statement was a group effort overseen by Andy Schotz, chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, who interviewed me over the phone.
We also exchanged emails. Schotz invited me to respond. The SPJ statement is below, with my responses (in blue) after each paragraph. Schotz promised to post my response on the SPJ Ethics Committee’s blog site. The WNC invites the SPJ Ethics Committee to engage in a public dialogue about these important issues of media ethics and accountability. I’ll post their response here. [Read more...]
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WNC’s Virtual Hearing Results are IN!

In an unprecedented “virtual hearing” on a complaint from Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Eyewitness News, dozens of people voted and added comments.
The votes were largely critical of KIRO and upheld Reed’s complaint. Of about 100 people who voted online, only a few defended KIRO while most supported Reed’s position.

See the Vote Results and Comments.

NOTE: If KIRO responds, we’ll post their full response.

Reed and his staff decided not to seek a full News Council hearing on the complaint, declaring that they “see little value in continuing to bang our head against the wall, knowing that KIRO will boycott the proceedings and will not acknowledge errors in fact and in tone, much less fix the problems.”

As an alternative to a public hearing, the WNC invited citizens to view the stories, read the complaint, then vote and comment in a “virtual hearing” as a Citizens Online News Council. The deadline was April 30, during national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists.

The complaint concerned two stories aired on KIRO (Oct. 15 and Nov. 3, 2008) about alleged voting violations.
You can download a copy of the complaint (page 1 & page 2)and Same Reed’s letter to the Washington News Council

Nov. 3 story on deceased voters:

YouTube Preview Image

Download a transcript of this story

Oct. 15 story on felon voters:

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Download a transcript of this story

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Public Votes in “Virtual Hearing” on Sam Reed vs. KIRO7 Complaint

In an unprecedented “virtual hearing,” dozens of people voted and commented as part of a Citizens Online News Council on a formal written complaint from Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Eyewitness News.

The votes were largely critical of KIRO7 and upheld Secretary Reed’s complaint. Of nearly 100 people who voted online, only a few defended KIRO. The rest supported Reed’s position.

A key part of the Washington News Council’s mission is to encourage citizen participation in public discussion of media ethics and accountability. This online vote advances that goal.

The WNC invited citizens to vote on the questions that the full News Council would have considered had this case gone to a hearing. (For a full list of the questions, total votes and collected comments, plus complete background information, see HERE)

The voting deadline was April 30, 2009, during national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Votes came from statewide, with a few from other states. Some votes were from journalists. Most voters added comments. Examples:

“KIRO TV’s News Director, Reporter, and General Manager should come clean and be a good example by admitting that a journalist made a mistake.”

– Ken Hatch, former president, KIRO TV

“KIRO was clearly cautioned about checking its facts, but seemed more driven by getting a sensational story than by being accurate.”

– Mike Flynn, former publisher, Puget Sound Business Journal

“This case deserves coverage in media journals to show how careless coverage easily misleads.”

– Arnold Ismach, former dean, University of Oregon Journalism School

“KIRO ignored much of the factual information presented in the meetings with the Secretary of State and reported only what they wanted to report to make the story more inflammatory.”

– Roy Kimbel, Center for Ethical Development, Tacoma Community College

“I would say that the damage was done to the state – and the democracy in which we live.”

– Mike Kittross, editor, Media Ethics magazine

When Reed filed his complaint with the Washington News Council, he contended that two KIRO stories aired last fall were “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory and unfair.” Reed and his staff had previously asked KIRO to air corrections and remove the stories from its website. When KIRO declined, Reed turned to the WNC.

The WNC accepted Reed’s complaint and hand-delivered it to KIRO. After they received the complaint, KIRO top management met with Reed and his staff in Olympia. They still refused to air corrections, but offered to remove the stories from their website if Reed agreed not inform the News Council or the public. Reed declined that offer. Later, KIRO removed the stories without informing Reed or the WNC, and without admitting any inaccuracies. Reed decided not to seek a public WNC hearing, so an online “virtual hearing” was proposed to hear citizens’ views.

The WNC invited KIRO to respond to Reed’s complaint, but the station did not return phone calls or emails, or answer a letter that accompanied the complaint. If KIRO responds at any time to the voting results and comments, we will post the full response on our website.

CONTACT: John Hamer, Executive Director (jhamer@wanewscouncil.org), 206.262.9793

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What do you think? Weigh in on our latest complaint

PLEASE VOTE BY APRIL 30 (the end of national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists)

We had a formal complaint from Washington’s Secretary of State, Sam Reed, against KIRO7 Eyewitness News (CBS affiliate in Seattle).

We invited KIRO to comment, but they did not respond to repeated letters, phone calls or emails. (NOTE: If KIRO responds, we’ll post their response HERE.)

READ THE COMPLAINT (page 1 & page 2) and SAM REED’S LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON NEWS COUNCIL.

The complaint concerned two stories aired on KIRO (Oct. 15 and Nov. 3, 2008) about alleged voting violations.

Nov. 3 story on deceased voters:

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CLICK HERE TO READ STORY

Oct. 15 story on felon voters:

CLICK HERE TO READ STORY

In his written complaint, Reed contended that the stories were “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory and unfair.”

However, Reed and his office staff decided NOT to ask for a full News Council hearing on this complaint. In an email to the WNC, they stated:

“After several conversations as part of the News Council negotiating period, KIRO eventually agreed to pull down their stories from the Web site if we would muzzle ourselves and not inform the News Council of the nature of this accommodation. This we cannot agree to, since this leaves KIRO offering very little and conceding nothing.

“At the same time, we weary of this frustrating battle and the countless man-hours devoted to researching chapter and verse of this sorry episode, and we see little value in continuing to bang our head against the wall, knowing that KIRO will boycott the proceedings and will not acknowledge errors in fact and in tone, much less fix the problem. A News Council finding in our favor would not change the dynamic; properly, in a nation that so values the First Amendment, the council cannot order KIRO to do anything.”

True: We cannot order KIRO to do anything. However, we invite members of the public to view or read the stories and to read Sam Reed’s complaint and letter.

We also invite members of the public to vote on the Draft Questions that the News Council would have voted on IF this case had gone to a WNC hearing.

In other words, we’re inviting you to be members of a “Citizens Online News Council” and render a public verdict on the merits of this complaint. Call it a “virtual hearing.”

Your votes, comments and feedback will be helpful to the WNC, to Sam Reed’s office, and (we hope) to KIRO7. View Comments.

Thank you!

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