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.

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Journalism Needs More Ombudsmen AND News Councils

Craig Silverman gives keynote speech to #ONO2011 meeting in Montreal. John Hamer of WNC (bald spot on left) listens along with Michael Getler, ombudsman of PBS (bald head on right).

“It’s really important that we have accountability mechanisms in journalism. When it comes to our own accountability, most news organizations are doing a pretty poor job, to be blunt.”

Craig Silverman, in keynote speech to Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) annual convention, Montreal

Craig Silverman, a regular columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and The Toronto Star, is also author of “Regret the Error – How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.” 

In his talk to the world’s ombudsmen last week, Silverman cited several studies which found that 40 to 60 percent of news stories contained some kind of error! A comprehensive survey of U.S. newspapers found the highest error rate on record.
“We’ve been telling people for literally hundreds of years that when we make a mistake we correct it,” Silverman said. But the U.S. study found a correction rate of only about 2 percent.

“That is pretty outrageous,” Silverman said. “If we’re only correcting 2 percent of errors, we’re not meeting our own standards. It represents a serious failure on the part of news organizations.”

“Reporters will be inclined to not want to run a correction, because they’ve been trained that that’s a bad thing,” Silverman said. “They need to change that attitude.” He’s right on both counts.

What’s more, errors are “now forever,” because they are cached online, and spread worldwide by Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., Silverman noted. Dealing with complaints about errors is one of the jobs of news ombudsmen – and also of news or press councils.

I joined the Organization of News Ombudsmen as an associate member last year, partly because I love the acronym – ONO! – but also because the Washington News Council is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for news media in this state.

Unfortunately, there are no full-time ombudsmen at any news organizations in our state anymore. That’s too bad. Over the years when I was at The Seattle Times, they had four different ombudsmen. A couple of them were pretty good. I edited their columns, which ran on the editorial pages.

Ombudsmen hear and respond to complaints from readers, viewers or listeners about news stories that are arguably inaccurate, unfair, imbalanced and/or unethical. That’s also what news or press councils do – and what we have done for the past 13 years.

Some say ombudsmen – since they are employed by the news outlets, have offices in or near the newsrooms, and generally know the editors, reporters, and producers – can deal with complaints more effectively. Of course, since their salaries are paid by those they are hired to critique, some also may question their level of independence. But most try to be fair, thorough and constructively critical. Many do criticize their own newspapers, broadcast stations, and/or websites strongly – and they’re often not too popular in newsrooms.

Also, the number of ombudsmen around the world has declined over the years – especially in the United States. ONO now has about 60 members worldwide, with only 20 in the U.S. Many media organizations say they simply can’t afford the position anymore, when they don’t even have enough reporters to cover their local communities.

Ombudsmen’s jobs have been eliminated at many American newspapers in recent decades – including at The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At the same time, some of the best American newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today – have created or enhanced the position, although some are called “public editors” or “reader representatives.” There are also experienced ombudsmen at most major broadcast news outlets worldwide. In this country, only PBS, NPR and now ESPN have ombudsmen.

Jeffrey Dvorkin, former NPR ombudsman who now is executive director of ONO, told his colleagues in Montreal: “The ombudsman’s job is like being on the front lines of the First Amendment…We’re in between the public and the editors. We point out the warts and flaws. The [news] organization doesn’t want to hear it. We’re speaking truth to power.”

Jacob Mollerup, the current president of ONO whose title is “Listeners and Viewers Editor” at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in Copenhagen, wryly described the job as “a lonely hell.”

He was only half joking. ONO members often say they have “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” Most journalists don’t like to hear complaints about their work and are reluctant to make corrections or explain their performance in public – which is what they always demand of those they cover. Double standard? Unquestionably.

The annual ONO conference is an opportunity for attendees to come together, swap stories, compare tactics, and commiserate with others who are in the same boat. Three days of panels, speakers and “shop talk” – with a few dinners and receptions thrown in – clearly have a therapeutic effect.

A draft business plan, sent out in advance and discussed on the final day of the gathering, notes that ONO’s first goal should be as a “meeting place and discussion forum.” The Montreal conference, for the first time, was simultaneously translated into English, French and Spanish, which was a great help to all.

Another goal is outreach – promoting ombudsmanship in cooperation with partners around the world. That includes to “be a serious partner in media projects where different organizations join forces in order to promote media accountability.”

A third is to expand the organization: “ONO should welcome members of independent press councils as associates.” I was invited to speak on a panel at their convention last year at Oxford University on how ombudsmen and press councils can work more closely together. And Mollerup recently attended the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe (AIPCE) conference.

A final goal is to keep an open mind for new projects and ways of promoting media accountability – including in cyberspace. That’s precisely what the WNC has been doing for the last few years, and I shared some of our ideas with ONO members:

  1. Report an Error. Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs have developed a new online “Report an Error” system now being used by about 100 news sites and blogs. The WNC has been working with them and we now have the “Report an Error” widget on this site. We invite readers to report errors in Pacific Northwest media as we test this intriguing new system.
  2. NewsTrust.net. We also invite them to nominate and review state and regional stories on our NewsTrust.net widget. You must register to become a reviewer and it’s a great tool, especially to praise high-quality stories.
  3. Online community.  People may join our online community and begin participating in discussions of various topics. Our groups have grown steadily.
  4. Online Media Guide. We’re also developing a new Online Media Guide (OMG) for Washington news and information sources, which will be a valuable resource for journalists, public-affairs professionals, politicians, academics, etc.

One of the most interesting speakers in Montreal was Guy Amyot, executive secretary of the Press Council of Quebec. His council, unlike some others in Canada and elsewhere, hears complaints about print, broadcast and online news media, not just newspapers.

“It is the liberty of the press to be independent from any power structure, but because of this freedom they have to be accountable,” Amyot said. “The media are not obliged to name ombudsmen and are also not obliged to join press councils.” But, he strongly suggested, they should do both. He’s absolutely right.

In order to maintain public trust and credibility, all those practicing journalism need to be more transparent, accountable and open. Ombudsmen and news councils can clearly help – if more journalists would only listen.

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American Journalism Review reviews WNC, so WNC reviews AJR

When I got a phone call from a reporter for American Journalism Review (AJR) saying he was doing a story about news councils, I was both happy and wary. Happy because we don’t get much national coverage, especially from a prestigious publication like AJR. Wary because the reporter said he was a young editorial assistant at the magazine and had never even heard of news councils before his editor asked him to write about them.

But hey, I was a young reporter once and often did stories on subjects I was clueless about, so I gladly consented to an interview. I wanted to make sure he got the story right. I spent a couple of hours on the phone with him explaining how we operated, giving him background information, and referring him to other possible sources.

The story was just posted on AJR’s website. Overall, it’s not bad. Well-written, accurate and reasonably balanced, with several different perspectives and lively quotes. To his credit, the reporter called me back twice to double-check facts and run my quotes by me to make sure that’s what I said. Not enough reporters do that, so kudos to AJR.

The story focuses on the demise of the Minnesota News Council, which closed its doors in January after a 40-year run. The MNC was the model for the Washington News Council when we started in 1998. We essentially adopted their guidelines and procedures, as AJR correctly notes.

The story — also correctly — points out that we are the only surviving news council in this country that still hears formal complaints against the news media.  It states — correctly — that the WNC and the MNC, with funding from the Knight Foundation, held a national contest to start two more news councils in 2005 and awarded start-up grants to groups in New England and California. It notes — correctly — that the New England News Council changed its name to New England News Forum, and decided not to hear public complaints against media outlets, but just to host discussions about news-coverage issues. It states — correctly — that the California effort (actually, just Southern California) “never got off the ground.” (Why? Because its director moved to another state.)

For the most part, the AJR story gets it right. However, there are some points I take issue with.

1. HEADLINE — “Fading Away” is true for the Minnesota council, but our council is as vigorous as ever. We just matched a $100,000 challenge grant from the Gates Foundation, received a $10,000 grant from Microsoft, and were named “Organization of the Year” by the Municipal League of King County. We totally redesigned our website in the past year, with an active blog, a growing online community, a fun “What I Read” series, a NewsTrust.net widget, and other innovative features. We have lots of exciting plans for 2011 and beyond. We are by no means fading away. What’s more, news and press councils are proliferating around the world. For a global list, see the AIPCE’s website.

2. OMISSIONS — The story doesn’t mention the WNC’s latest really cool projects, including our “TAO of Journalism – Transparent, Accountable, Open” Pledge and Seal, which is gaining traction nationwide, and our unprecedented new OMG (Online Media Guide) for Washington state, which is generating great interest. Granted, the reporter’s space was limited, but surely there was room for a sentence or two about these efforts — especially since the story is a “web exclusive.”

3. QUOTES — AJR quotes some folks whose comments are debatable, to say the least. Tony Carideo, the last chairman of the MNC, says that the willing participation of news organizations is “absolutely critical” to the success of any news council. Well, maybe. But in our 13 years of operations, new organizations have never actually appeared at our complaint hearings to answer questions about the stories at issue. In each case, they responded in written statements or online, but were not willing to face the complainants and the council in an open forum. Carideo told AJR that if the news outlets don’t participate, “that doesn’t work.” Oh, really? He should ask King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, whose complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was upheld, or the Washington State Beef Commission and Dairy Products Commission, whose complaint against KIRO7 TV was upheld.  The process clearly worked for them, as it has for others who have come to us when they had no other recourse. The fact that the media organizations didn’t participate in person actually reflects more negatively on them than on us.

4. TECHNOLOGY — AJR quotes Carideo and Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation saying that with the Internet, online feedback to news outlets is much quicker and easier, so there is less need for a complaint-and-hearing process. However, both acknowledge that comments sections are often uncivil and unproductive, and a news council can provide more thoughtful analysis of media ethics and performance. Gary Gilson, former head of the MNC, says it is “absurd” to think that online access provides “any serious measure of accountability to the general public.” He’s absolutely right. People constantly tell me that we are needed now more than ever.

Newton is spot on when he states: “We still need to keep thinking of good ways to keep quality news and information about journalism on the table when complaints are discussed, but it looks like we need digital, real time ways to do it.” That is precisely what the Washington News Council is doing — and further evidence that we are not fading away. Instead, we are actively  reinventing ourselves in the digital media age. Want to help? Join our community. Talk back. Connect. Engage.

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Does journalism matter anymore?

Does journalism matter anymore? What exactly IS journalism these days, anyway? Who is a journalist — and who’s not?

These are some of the questions in the air the “Journalism That Matters” conference at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I’m spending a few days.

The conference was organized by two Seattleites and a former Spokane guy. Stephen Silha, who lives on Vashon Island, started the “JTM” series in 2001, and is former president of the Washington News Council. Peggy Holman, who lives in Bellevue, is a gifted meeting facilitator and “change agent.” And Chris Peck, former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, has been a driving force in the JTM series, and is now editor of The Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

About 100 people are here from all over the country, with a few from elsewhere in the world. All are interested in the future of journalism, but aren’t sure exactly what that future will be. [Read more...]

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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).

CONTACTS:

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

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

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