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.


The News Council Elects New Officers, Restructures Board, Wins Gates Grant

WNC Elects New Officers, Restructures Board, Wins Gates Grant

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) has elected five new officers to serve on its Board of Directors for 2010:

Chair: Suzie Burke, President of Fremont Dock Company

President: John Hamer, former Executive Director of WNC

Vice President: Martin Neeb, KPLU General Manager Emeritus

Treasurer: Olivia Lippens, President of Clear Channel Outdoor

Secretary: Shannon Frew, Communications Director, Commercial Aviation Services, Commercial Airplanes, The Boeing Company

These officers will constitute an Executive Committee of the WNC’s Board of Directors and oversee strategy, development and governance.

In addition, a WNC Hearings Council, made up of current Board Members and Board Members Emeritus, will review complaints and convene when complaint hearings become necessary.

Hearings Council Chair: Karen Seinfeld, Former Presiding Chief Judge, Washington State Court of Appeals (re-elected to current position)

All members of the Board of Directors and the Hearings Council are eligible to serve on committees, including Complaints, Development, Education, Nominating, Publicity or any other ad hoc committees.

The WNC recently was awarded a $100,000 challenge grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, after matching it with $100,000 in donations from other donors. (See below for details.)

The WNC is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. Donations are tax-deductible.

CONTACT: John Hamer, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org , 206.262.9793


Complaint Upheld at Washington News Council Hearing in Case of King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office versus Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Washington News Council largely upheld a complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer filed by the King County Sheriff’s Office at a WNC public hearing in Seattle on Oct. 21.

NOTE: The WNC hearing was filmed by TVW and may be viewed in the video archives on TVW’s website. See www.tvw.org. (DVDs will be available from the WNC, please call our office for details.)

The written complaint concerned a series of P-I articles called “Conduct Unbecoming” that ran in the newspaper in 2005 and 2006. (For link, see www.seattlepi.com.) The complaint contended that key aspects of some stories were “inaccurate, biased or misleading,” with the overall effect of “unfairly disparaging” the Sheriff’s Office.

The P-I responded to the complaint in a 17-page document posted on its website, with copies hand-delivered to the Washington News Council, but P-I management declined to attend the hearing. Media participation is voluntary. However, most of the P-I’s response was read into the record at the hearing by WNC Chair Karen Seinfeld.

The News Council voted on 11 separate questions pertaining to various aspects of the stories. Of the Council’s 20 current members, six recused themselves from voting at the hearing due to the possible appearance of potential conflicts of interest. Three others (including one who would have recused) did not attend the hearing. Three WNC members emeritus sat in and voted in place of absent members.

WNC President Stephen Silha issued this statement after the hearing:

“Our News Council members found that the P-I was unfair to Sheriff Rahr in some of the stories published over the past year and a half. In particular, they were imprecise, incomplete and at times inaccurate in the reporting on the sheriff’s role in pensions, discipline, and other issues. While the P-I series has provided a real public service in its inquiry into the sheriff’s office and the activities of several deputies, in the view of the News Council, the paper overreached in reporting on Rahr’s role and failed to make adequate corrections and clarifications in a timely way. This hearing proves once again that the News Council is the best and fairest place where citizens and journalists can discuss constructively how news stories affect the community.”

In a subsequent statement, Sheriff Sue Rahr said:

“I want to thank the Washington News Council members for their time and careful deliberation of this very complex and lengthy case. This body is vital to ensuring the press is providing accurate and balanced information to the public, not only about their government, but other issues that affect their lives. The public has a right to fair, accurate and balanced information. You’re doing a great service to the community by taking action that will improve the practice of journalism. I hope other people can take advantage of this process. I also want to thank every member of the Sheriff’s Office who have held their heads high and continued to serve the public with honor and integrity while under the cloud of this series of stories.”

In a P-I story that ran Oct. 23, Associate Publisher Kenneth F. Bunting said:

“Our reporting of the sheriff’s complaint and our response is available for our readers, and I’m confident that most readers will see this complaint for what it is: an attempt to detract from the very real issues we raised in the public interest.” P-I Managing Editor David McCumber added: “This pronouncement, while regrettable, does nothing to diminish the excellent journalism of ‘Conduct Unbecoming.’ ”

The questions and final votes were:

1) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate or misleading in describing the role of the Sheriff’s Office in deciding whether deputies facing discipline could resign or retire to avoid discipline or firing? YES: 12; NO: 1; ABSTAIN: 1.

2) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate and misleading in describing the impacts on pensions of former deputies — particularly Dan Ring’s pension — relating to decisions made and actions taken, or not taken, by the Sheriff’s Office? YES: 13; NO: 1.

3) Did P-I coverage unfairly characterize the Metro Transit Police Unit as a “dumping ground” for troubled deputies because five of 47 officers assigned to the unit had histories of disciplinary issues? YES: 10 votes; NO: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.

4)  Was reporting of Deputy Abreu’s transfer inaccurate? YES: 10; NO: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.

5)  Was reporting of the unit biased on behalf of critics by not including more comments from a supportive security liaison? NO: 10; YES: 1; ABSTAIN: 3

6) Was P-I coverage inaccurate, misleading, and inflammatory in stating that the Sheriff’s Office retaliated against citizens and transit staff members who complain about deputies’ performance? YES: 7; NO: 1; ABSTAIN: 6.

7) Was P-I coverage of the public meeting in Kenmore biased and unfair? NO: 12; YES: 0; ABSTAIN: 2.

8) Was P-I coverage of a blue ribbon panel biased and misleading in overstating criticism of the Sheriff’s Office?NO: 10; YES: 2; ABSTAIN: 2.

9) Considering all of the stories submitted, many in the series “Conduct Unbecoming,” did P-I coverage and commentary unfairly disparage the Sheriff’s Office? YES: 12; NO: 2.

10) Did the P-I allow adequate access for comment and rebuttal by the KCSO? NO: 10; YES: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.

11) Were acknowledged mistakes in coverage corrected adequately and in a timely manner? NO: 12; YES: 0; ABSTAIN: 2.

NOTE: The following question was voluntarily withdrawn from the complaint by Sheriff Rahr after the Council’s public deliberation period.

12) As it published the “Conduct Unbecoming” series and related articles, did the P-I fail to adhere to acceptable standards of journalistic ethics by not disclosing to readers the potential conflict of interest — real or perceived — involving Managing Editor David McCumber’s discussions with then-Sheriff Dave Reichert about writing a book on the Green River murders? NOT VOTED ON.

The hearing, which was open to the public and the press, was attended by interested citizens and journalism students. A written summary will be posted soon on the WNC’s website, along with a complete list of individual members’ votes.

The Washington News Council is an independent, nonprofit 501c3 citizens’ organization whose mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by providing a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and fairness.

The WNC is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for the news media in Washington state. It has no official power or legal authority. WNC hearings are not judicial proceedings, but open discussions. Complainants agree not to sue media outlets; the WNC process is an alternative to litigation. Votes on complaints carry no sanctions other than publicity.

The Council’s Board members are all volunteers. Half of them are Media members who spent most of their careers in journalism. Half are Public members from a wide range of professions and backgrounds. Chair Karen Seinfeld, a former Washington State Court of Appeals judge, presided over the hearing but does not vote.

The Washington News Council was formed in 1998. It is one of five news councils in the United States. The others are in Minnesota (formed in 1970), Hawaii (1972), New England (2006) and Southern California (2006).


Stephen Silha, ssilha@comcast.net, WNC President, 206.567.4363

John Hamer, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org, Executive Director, 206.262.9793


Op-Ed Rejected by Seattle Post-Intelligencer after Hearing

WNC President Stephen Silha submitted the following op-ed piece to the Seattle P-I after the Oct. 21 hearing, but the P-I declined to publish it:


By Stephen Silha

We live in an age when accurate reporting is more important than ever – on the international, national, and especially the local level.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s series on systemic problems in the King County Sheriff’s Office — “Conduct Unbecoming” — has performed a significant public service. Perhaps that is why it recently won a C.B. Blethen Award for investigative reporting.

However, the series was deeply flawed. It often became inaccurate, incomplete, and biased to prove a point.

That’s why the Washington News Council – a representative group of journalists and citizens – reprimanded the P-I at an Oct. 21`hearing where Sheriff Sue Rahr and her public information officer, Sgt. John Urquhart, presented their case.

They argued convincingly that the P-I “unfairly disparaged” her office, created unwarranted fear of county police, and made it hard to recruit highly qualified officers.

At the three-plus-hour hearing (which can be seen archived at www.tvw.org), the council considered 11 specific questions about journalistic fairness in the ongoing series and coverage.  In eight of the questions, a majority of us agreed with the Sheriff.  On three questions, we agreed with the P-I.  (For details on questions and votes, see our website: www.wanewscouncil.org.)

The essence of the Council’s finding is this:

The P-I had a good story.  They told some of it well, and produced significant results.

But then they turned it into a series of sometimes-sensationalized stories that didn’t always provide full context.  Their clarifications and corrections were too few, incomplete, and often late, especially the on-line corrections where the stories live on.  They alienated the Sheriff and her staff – with demands such as requesting written answers to 68 questions in a 24-hour deadline– to the point where she refused interviews for the past year.

At one point the P-I questioned the ability of our able executive director, John Hamer, to appear impartial in a dispute involving coverage of his wife’s boss, ex-Sheriff (now Congressman) Dave Reichert—even though Hamer had never met Rahr nor Urquhart before this complaint.

So Hamer immediately removed himself from handling any of the substantive aspects of the case, and put that in the hands of our complaints committee, co-chaired by retired Spokesman-Review Associate Editor Chuck Rehberg and TVW President Cindy Zehnder.

After the P-I alleged that other News Council members could not be impartial, six of our members who had made contributions to Rahr or Reichert (and who could have added a lot to the discussion) or had other potential conflicts recused themselves from discussing and voting at the hearing to further avoid any appearance of impartiality. Yet the P-I’s publisher and top editors still refused to participate in the hearing.

Our big question remains:  Why did the P-I choose not to attend the hearing?

In a time when the public is increasingly skeptical of newspapers and other big institutions, it was an opportunity for the P-I to add significantly to public trust and understanding.

Instead, we believe the newspaper failed in its responsibility to public accountability by refusing to attend.

Our Chair, Judge Karen Seinfeld, did read from their extensive 17-page response to the complaint and, we felt, fairly represented their perspective.

In this imperfect world, the news council (a form used around the world) is the best and fairest place where citizens and journalists can discuss constructively how news stories affect the community.  In fact, it’s an alternative to litigation; for a complaint to be accepted by the council, you must agree not to sue.

As WNC Public Member Sandy Schoolfield said at the hearing:  “Both the P-I and the Sheriff’s Office are important institutions in our community.  To have you at loggerheads, calling each other liars for this long is a very bad place for us to be.”

The news council’s mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by creating a forum where the citizens and journalists can engage each other in examining standards of journalistic fairness and accountability.

The P-I missed an opportunity by not participating in the face-to-face dialogue.  And we’ll never know whether the Council’s votes would have been different had the P-I been willing to “stand by its story” in public.

Stephen Silha is president of the Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org).   He is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and former reporter for The Minneapolis Star and The Christian Science Monitor.


“100 Friends of the WNC” — Distinguished Group Growing Fast!

The Washington News Council has formed100 Friends of the WNC. Members pledge to donate $1,000 a year for three consecutive years to help support the News Council’smission. Friends also receive two tickets to our annual Gridiron West Dinners.

Members so far include: Nancy Alvord, Minoru & Yoko Arakawa, Tom Barwick, Richard & Edwina Baxter, James Bianco, Steve Boyer, Herb & Shirley Bridge, Suzie Burke, Doris Cassan, Pedro & Laura Celis, Tom Cock Jr., Jane & David Davis, Tom Downey, Jennifer Dunn, Jim Ellis, Bill Gates Sr., Margo & Andy Gordon, Martha Kongsgaard & Peter Goldman, Austin & Ina Hamer, Ken & Cathi Hatch, Tom & Peggy Hayward, Richard & Elizabeth Hedreen, Bob & Pat Herbold, Sandeep Kaushik & Elizabeth Goodwin, Betsy Lieberman & Richard Groomer, Grant & Marci Larsen, Bruce & Jolene McCaw, Chuck & Tracy Nordhoff, Chuck & Cathy Novak, Mary Odermat, Vic Odermat, Mary Pigott, Joe & Jaynie Putnam, Harry & Ann Pryde, Skip Rowley, Bill & Jill Ruckelshaus, Sandy Schoolfield & Jon Kechejian, Karen Seinfeld, Helen Silha, Stephen Silha, Gary Smith, John Stanton & Theresa Gillespie, Sid Snyder, Craig & Joan Watjen.

If you’d like to join this distinguished group, please call our office at 206.262.9793 or go to the “Click & Pledge” box at the top of this page.


WNC Elects New Chair, Public Member

Karen Seinfeld was elected chair of the Washington News Council at the WNC’s most recent board meeting on Oct. 29. Seinfeld replaces Robert Utter, who has chaired the WNC since 1998. Seinfeld is former Chief Presiding Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals. She retired in May, and lives in Tacoma.

Ann Goos was elected as a Public Member of the Washington News Council at the same meeting. Goos is Director of Development for the Agriculture & Forestry Education Foundation and former Campaign Manager for the Seattle Public School Levies Campaign. She lives in Seattle.