Standing Strong: Poynter highlights our future as the last News Council

Media watchdog Craig Silverman is a stickler for accuracy. We’re a big fan of his work, and are pleased to hear his interest in our nation’s last remaining news council. Check out his piece on Poynter:

How the last U.S. news council hopes to survive

Craig let us review parts of the draft for factual accuracy ahead of time, and we found a few mistakes that were quickly taken care of before it went out. Something we’d like to see more of in the journalism world.

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News Council Praised at World’s Largest Rotary Club

Paul Ishii

Paul Ishii - President of Seattle Rotary

The Washington News Council received two strong   “testimonials” about our work during Rotary Club of Seattle meetings in recent weeks – one from Rotary President Paul Ishii and the other from former Microsoft Chief Operating Officer Bob Herbold.

On Oct. 3, Rotary President Paul Ishii told the 500+ club members that he had been the subject of an inaccurate story in The Seattle Times alleging that an employee of the Mayflower Park Hotel, where Ishii is general manager, would not be covered for lost wages while recuperating from a gunshot wound received when he helped stop an armed robber.

That was untrue: Paul will cover employee Roberto Sandoval’s wages and benefits while he is unable to work. Paul had called the reporter and the online version was corrected and the paper also printed a correction on Page A2 in the Sunday paper. However, The Times the day before had published an editorial based on the inaccurate news story that repeated the erroneous information and urged donations to a fund to pay for Sandoval’s lost wages. The editorial remains uncorrected online at the time of this writing — although The Times did print a correction on the editorial page three days later.

“It’s pretty scary to be labeled guilty in the newspaper. I felt like a shmuck,” Paul told the 500 Rotarians gathered for their weekly lunch meeting. He said he was deluged by angry emails and phone calls based on the incorrect story and editorial. Uncertain how to proceed, Paul said: “I called John Hamer of the Washington News Council at home really early on a Saturday morning and he walked me through step-by-step on what I should do.”

Paul followed my recommendations, and The Times made the corrections, which appeared within a few days, in both the news and editorial sections. Paul thanked me and the WNC for our help – and also thanked The Times for setting the record straight.

Bob Herbold

Bob Herbold - Retired executive vice president and chief operating officer of Microsoft

A week later, on Oct. 10, former Microsoft executive Bob Herbold was the featured speaker at Seattle Rotary. Here is part of what he said:

“The news media are a significant part of the problem that democracies are having in making tough decisions. Specifically, any time a politician suggests a change to just about anything, the media will find someone disadvantaged by that change and will showcase that ‘victim.’ That kind of sensationalism is what attracts an audience, be it readers or viewers. Given that virtually all politicians have as their first priority getting re-elected, they back off and shy away from change in the future.”

In the Q-and-A session, I asked Bob this question:

“Bob, you cited the media as being part of the problem. But under the First Amendment, we can’t have any government control or regulation or censorship of the media, and we don’t want that. What two or three things would you suggest that might help address your concerns about the media?”

HERBOLD: “It’s a big challenge, especially with all the media on the Internet and in the blogosphere. People can say anything they want to. There is some good information on the Internet, but a lot of it is just bias, inaccuracies, and slanted opinion.

I honestly don’t know what to suggest. It’s a real challenge. It is getting increasingly difficult for leadership to exist in a democracy, particularly the kind of very courageous leadership required to clean up the huge financial messes that so many democracies find themselves in.

“You’re going to be in business for a long time, John. The Washington News Council gets involved in cases of bad or inaccurate stories, and tries to help people who have been damaged by the media. That’s how John makes his living. And it’s an important job.”

The Washington News Council would like to thank Paul and Bob for their comments — which were completely unsolicited and a nice surprise!

NOTE: Both Herbold and Ishii have donated to the News Council in the past and have also attended some of our events.

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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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Flynn’s Harp: News Council weighs future in new-media era


Mike Flynn, the former publisher of the Puget Sound Business journal, just wrote a piece supporting our nation’s last standing news council (yours truly!). Have a look over at Flynn’s Harp and consider supporting us as we keep up the fight against unfair and unethical media practices.

The challenge has been the reluctance of the media to help any organization, including WNC, look over its shoulder, a reluctance put in perspective by Blair Thompson, whose Washington Dairy Products Commission was among the entities that have come to WNC with complaints.

“The media readily arrogate to themselves the freedom, indeed, the right, to hold everyone in our society accountable to their scrutiny,” said Thompson. “Unfortunately, what many media are reluctant to do is to allow themselves to be held accountable for their actions. The disinclination of most media to be held accountable can express itself in hostility to anyone who tries, and this has includes the Washington News Council.”

Also stay tuned for our upcoming hearing against KIRO TV, more on that very shortly!

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Last U.S. News Council Standing: Q & A with John Hamer, Washington News Council

As you may have heard, we are keeping up the fight as the last fully operating News Council standing in America. This has perked some attention from others who do the kind of work we strive for, to create a world of honest, accurate, news.

The Art Science Research Laboratory was founded by the late Stephen Jay Gould (yep, the same one), and his widow Rhonda Roland Shearer in 1996, who now manages the site StinkyJournalism.org. They’ve done some interesting work to promote scientific integrity in the news, including an extensive operation to fact check claims by popular anthropologist Jared Diamond that involved sending three researchers to tribal Papua New Guinea to uncover several mistruths about the indigenous tribe he reported on.

Rhonda gave us a call and spoke to Executive Director John Hamer to talk about our work at the News Council. Have a look at the full interview, and check out some of their media reports.

Here’s a little preview, where John talks about the challenges of running our operation:

“Keeping the doors open has been a challenge for 13 years, but we’ve managed,” Hamer said, attributing the group’s success to ”hard work and perseverance” and a solid start. ”You’ve just gotta plug away, do your best, ignore your critics, always be the bigger person, reach out to people, when you find supporters embrace them, when you find critics, be respectful, answer their concerns face to face….

I got a wide range of people and we were nonpartisan or bipartisan.  A lot of people thought we’d be a right wing media bashing organization or a left wing media bashing organization. And I said no, we’re going to be very even, very fair, bipartisan. I can tick down our founding board — 6 Democrats, 6 Republicans. They might not have agreed on a lot of things, but they agreed on the need for accurate, ethical media.”

Also, the original council members were half journalists and half business people, including Bill Gates Sr. “To have him sign on as one of our original council members, our credibility just went through the roof.”

“I think that it is a loss for American journalism that we’re the only one,” Hamer said.  “I think every state should have a news council like ours, or some kind of outside independent organization that can provide…oversight in a way. But we don’t police. We’re not a watchdog.”

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Recent Coverage of WNC

Washington Law & Politics (spring 2009 issue) article on the WNC

The Stranger’s article (March 5 issue) on Sam Reed vs. KIRO

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