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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KIRO7 Eyewitness News Removes Two Stories from Website After Secretary of State Sam Reed Files Complaint with News Council

After Secretary of State Sam Reed filed a formal written complaint with the Washington News Council, KIRO7 Eyewitness News removed two disputed stories from its website.

In his complaint, Reed contended 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.”

Reed contacted KIRO and objected to the stories after they aired last fall, but KIRO did not respond. Reed filed a complaint in December 2008 with the Washington News Council, an independent organization dedicated to media accuracy and fairness.

Although its findings carry no legal sanctions or other penalties, the News Council, a 501c3 nonprofit group, does hold public hearings about news coverage that is in dispute.

After the complaint was delivered to KIRO, station executives asked to meet with Reed in Olympia. Reed said that was a direct result of his filing a complaint with the WNC.

Initially, they stood by their stories and refused to run any corrections or to remove the stories from KIRO’s website. Then they offered to remove the stories if Reed would agree not to inform the News Council or the public – but Reed refused that request. KIRO finally took the stories off its website without notifying Reed or the Council.

The first story, which ran on Oct. 15, 2008, alleged that although convicted felons are not allowed to vote, about 24,000 felons had been issued ballots and at least 6,800 got ballots to vote in the 2008 fall elections. KIRO reporter Chris Halsne interviewed a woman who supposedly was a convicted felon but 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. Halsne interviewed the widow of a man who supposedly had “voted” although he’d been dead since 1996.

After the stories ran, the Secretary of State’s office said it was deluged with angry phone calls and emails from citizens who had seen the stories. However, Reed contended that the stories were false and contained numerous errors, such as:

1. The “felon” was not a felon. She had been convicted only of a misdemeanor, so she never lost her right to vote.
2. The “dead” voter was not dead. The deceased man’s son, who has the same name, had voted and Halsne had confused the two men.

In a 10-page letter to the WNC detailing his complaint, 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.”

Along with his written complaint, Reed signed the WNC’s waiver form, pledging that he would not sue KIRO7. The News Council’s process is an alternative to litigation.

The News Council hand-delivered Reed’s written complaint, letter and waiver form to KIRO on Dec. 31, 2008, and asked for a written response from KIRO within 10 days. KIRO did not respond to that request, and did not return repeated WNC calls or emails.

However, KIRO General Manager Eric Lerner called Sam Reed’s office to schedule a meeting. Lerner, along with 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 detailed what they called 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, let Halsne defend his stories, and 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 disappointed, 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.”

The News Council then prepared to hold a public hearing, broadcast by TVW, at which the WNC board would publicly discuss and vote openly on the merits of the complaint.

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. WNC hearings are an educational forum for open public discussion of media ethics.

John Hamer, executive director of the Washington News Council, said the case will now be used in “mock hearings” in high-school and college journalism classes statewide, as part of the WNC’s decade-long effort to instill high standards of ethics and accuracy in future generations of journalists. (Call our office for days/times.)

Finally, in lieu of a public hearing, the WNC invites the public to participate in a “Citizens Online News Council.” The KIRO stories, Reed’s complaint and letter, and key questions for discussion will be posted on our website, www.wanewscouncil.org. Members of the public are invited to view the stories, read the complaint, and “vote” on several issues regarding the KIRO stories. The WNC welcomes public participation.

CONTACT: John Hamer, WNC Executive Director, 206.262.9793 or 206.910.5270. Email: jhamer@wanewscouncil.org Address: P.O. Box 3672, Seattle WA 98124.

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