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...]

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


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.


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