News Council Finds Seattle Times’ Sex Predator Stories Partly Unfair

Votes split 6-4 in Dr. Richard Wollert v. The Seattle Times case

In a public hearing at Town Hall on Saturday, June 1, the Washington News Council (WNC) found flaws in The Seattle Times’ January 2012 series entitled “Price of Protection,” about the costs of a controversial state program for civil commitment of Washington’s worst sex offenders.

By a 6-4 vote, the News Council’s 10-member Hearing Board said the newspaper’s overall portrayal of Dr. Richard Wollert, a Vancouver psychologist who deals with sexually violent predators, was inaccurate, unfair, incomplete and imbalanced. The Hearing Board considered 12 questions during the three-hour hearing, upholding six of Dr. Wollert’s objections, siding with The Seattle Times on two, and deadlocking on three. One question was removed at Dr. Wollert’s request.

The Seattle Times declined to participate in the News Council hearing, but Executive Editor David Boardman sent a letter stating they would not attend because it would constitute “support for a process to which we fundamentally object.” The letter was read into the record by WNC Hearing Board Chair Karen Seinfeld, former Chief Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals.

The Times also protested the WNC’s decision to allow voting by the audience and the general public online in addition to the Hearing Board’s votes. The event was videotaped and webcast by TVW, and citizens are invited to vote anytime through June 15, 2013 — preferably after reading the materials and watching the hearing discussion.

“Due to the complexity of the issues and the lack of participation from The Seattle Times, the Council found this case to be one of the most challenging in our 15-year history,” said John Hamer, president and executive director of the WNC. “While many panelists saw value in the overall story, the majority thought The Times’ characterization of Dr. Wollert was partly incorrect and damaged him, as his complaint alleged.”

Some Hearing Board members noted that The Seattle Times’ refusal to present its side in person and answer questions was comparable to Dr. Wollert’s declining to be interviewed by The Seattle Times’ reporter, whom he believed was hostile and agenda-driven. “Turning down an interview request does not waive the obligation of the press to be accurate,” said Tom Ranken, a News Council board officer.

In addition to the board’s votes, members of the public now are welcome to watch TVW’s videotape of the hearing, read The Times’ stories and the complaint documents, and vote online through June 15, when the results of the public vote will be posted. The Hearing Board and live audience’s votes are now posted on the WNC’s website. About 20 college journalism students also attended and voted.

The Washington News Council is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded in 1998 by a group of citizens, including journalists, to promote media accuracy and fairness. WNC hearings have no legal power and are not a trial, but an open and educational public discussion of media ethics and accountability.

MORE INFORMATION:

Hearing Board vote results were as follows:
No.
Question
WNC Hearings Board
Yes
No
Abstained
1
Was The Times accurate in its Jan. 21, 2012, article stating that Dr. Richard Wollert has been “pushing his own science and theories” and “often finds himself under attack for his changing theories of recidivism and his self-made assessment tools”?
5
5
0
2
Did The Times contact, or attempt to contact, and utilizesufficiently diverse sources who may have had a point of view about Dr. Wollert different from that generally expressed by prosecutors and assistant attorneys general?
2
7
1
3
Did The Times fully and fairlyportray Dr. Wollert in two videos when it quoted one critic [Brooke Burbank] saying that he is an “outlier” who comes up with “his own methodologies that are simply not sound science,” and another [David Hackett] saying that he “makes his living offering one opinion” and is “essentially a symphony with one note”?
4
6
0
4
Did The Times fully and fairlyportray Dr. Wollert in its Jan. 21, 2012, article when it quoted a critic [Amy Phenix] saying “Wollert almost always finds a reason why an offender doesn’t meet criteria for commitment” and “His reports are a gross misrepresentation of risk – it’s mumbo-jumbo.”
5
5
0
5
Was the Jan. 21, 2012, “Price of Protection” series headline, “State Wastes Millions Helping Sex Predators Avoid Lock-up”accurate and fair?
5
5
0
6
Was The Times’ account of Dr. Wollert’s testimony in the trial of Jack Leck accurate in stating that “Wollert was relying on Leck’s words, even though he knew Leck was a habitual liar and had even been deceptive during the psychological evaluation”?
3
6
1
7
Was The Times accurate in stating that Dr. Wollert “removed key questions” from the “Static 99” test to assess the likelihood that SVPs will reoffend?
2
7
1
8
Did The Times’ reporter’s approach to Dr. Wollert, which he perceived as so agenda-driven that he refused to grant an interview, contribute to any lack of balance in the series?
withdrawn
withdrawn
withdrawn
9
Did The Times’ Investigations Editor, James Neff, provide anadequate explanation in his May 25, 2012, letter to Dr. Wollert regarding the newspaper’s decision not to make any corrections in 2012?
7
3
0
10
Was The Times accurate in its Jan 21, 2012, story stating that: “In 2001 the county [Multnomah] criticized Wollert for incomplete assessments, inadequate treatment guidelines, and poor record keeping, and later cancelled his contract”?
0
9
1
11
Was The Times’ correction and clarification on March 22, 2013, stating that “[Multnomah] county and Wollert agreed to end the contract” and “In fact, the contract was cancelled by mutual agreement of the parties” adequate?
7
2
1
12
Overall, did The Times’ “Price of Protection” series portray Dr. Wollert, including his academic background, research history, scientific methodologies and past testimony, in anaccurate, fair, complete and balanced way?
4
6
0
Twitter: @WAnewscouncil

CONTACT:
John Hamer, WNC President, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org
Phone: 206-262-9793  Address: 1201 1st Ave. S. #331, Seattle WA 98134
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