What are the information needs of the Puget Sound region?

Last month a group of local journalism creators/innovators/enthusiasts convened at the Alki Arts Studio in West Seattle to welcome Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow Lisa Skube. Skube has been trekking the country as part of her mission to accelerate the field of journalism in the digital media world, and she provided great fodder for discussion on the information needs of our community. WNC’s John Hamer and Jacob Caggiano took part in the brainshare hosted by Journalism that Matters.

There was talk of collaboration, platform fatigue, content management, relational impact, Facebook engagement, and even a funding success story with a dash of optimism thrown in for good measure.

Please check out Lisa’s video highlights of the evening and learn more about the work she is doing with RJI.

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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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WNC Helps Form New Southern California and New England News Councils, with Knight Foundation national grant

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) and the Minnesota News Council (www.news-council.org) announced on June 30, 2006, that Southern California and New England were the winners in a national contest to create two new local news councils.

The Southern California News Council and the New England News Council now become the fourth and fifth such councils in the United States, joining those in Minnesota, Washington and Hawaii. Dozens of other such councils exist in nations around the world.

News councils are independent, nonprofit organizations that promote trusted journalism by investigating accuracy and fairness complaints against news outlets. They help determine the facts involved in these disputes, and provide open forums where citizens and journalists can discuss media ethics, standards and performance.

The new news councils each receive a $75,000 start-up grant, given by Washington and Minnesota from funds provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami, Fla. The WNC and MNC received a joint grant last year from Knight to design the national contest, advertise it nationwide, review applications and select two winners.

“News councils are an idea whose time has come – again,” said Stephen Silha, president of the Washington News Council board. “Every state deserves a news council.”

The Southern California News Council will temporarily reside at the Journalism Department at California State University, Long Beach, with the goal of forming an independent nonprofit 501c3 organization. It will cover the state from Santa Barbara south. It will be headed by Bill Babcock, chairman of the Journalsim Department at Cal State Long Beach. The Washington News Council’s Executive Director, John Hamer, presented the grant to Babcock at a gathering on the campus on June 30.

The New England News Council will reside in the Journalism Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and cover the six New England states. It will be led by Bill Densmore, a journalism professor there who also directs the Media Giraffe Project. The Minnesota News Council’s Executive Director, Gary Gilson, presented the grant to Densmore Amherst during the “Media and Democracy” conference on the campus June 30. Washington News Council President Stephen Silha was also there, leading a “Journalism That Matters” national seminar.

Organizing committees for the two new councils include journalists, academics and members of the public. Both councils will invite the participation of a broad and diverse range of citizens who care deeply about the vital role of news media in a democracy.

An informal advisory board for the project included national journalism leaders Merrill Brown, Fabrice Florin, Dan Gillmor, Loren Ghiglione, Cyrus Krohn, Phil Meyer, Bill Moyers, Jay Rosen, and Jan Schaefer.

The birth of these news councils coincides with a growing trend toward openness and accountability in the news media driven by the new era of two-way communications marked by the emergence of the Internet.

“A news council or any inquiry that seeks out the real facts behind media complaints is better than a blogger working from opinion alone, and vastly superior to the talking heads on cable TV with their pre-fixed political menus,” said Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at the Knight Foundation.

“If the news media want to restore their eroding credibility with the public, they should embrace the news council concept,” said John Finnegan Sr., chairman of the Minnesota News Council board.

In Washington and Minnesota, the news councils comprise two dozen or so members from the public and the news media, who represent only themselves, not their employers. They listen to unresolved complaints and media responses at a public hearing, investigate the facts behind the complaints, and then offer their view as to whether or not the complaint is valid. Complainants must waive the right to sue to qualify for a hearing.

In Washington, only two complaints have been upheld since the council was formed in 1998, while others were dismissed as unwarranted or were resolved with the council’s help. In Minnesota, half the complaints have been upheld and half denied since the news council started in 1970.

Participation by news outlets is entirely voluntary.

Both the California and New England councils plan to engage the public and the media on the Internet, through interactive forums on journalistic standards and ethics. The Washington and Minnesota councils regularly conduct public forums that stress civil discourse, not media-bashing. The results often improve media quality and increase public trust. The existing councils also work with college and high-school journalism students, conduct mock news council hearings, and award scholarships. The Washington News Council sponsors an annual Gridiron West Dinner, always held in November.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation promotes journalism excellence worldwide and invests in the communities where the Knight Brothers owned newspapers. Since its creation in 1950, the Knight Foundation has invested more than $275 million to advance journalism quality and freedom of expression. For more, visit www.knightfdn.org/annual.

CONTACTS:

John Hamer, Executive Director, WNC, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org (206.262.9793)

Bill Babcock, Cal State Long Beach, wbabcock@csulb.edu (562.985.4981)

Gary Gilson, Executive Director, MNC, gary@news-council.org (612.341.9357)

Bill Densmore, UMass Amherst, densmore@journ.umass.edu (413.458.8001)

Eric Newton, Director of Journalism Initiatives, enewton@knightfdn.org (305.908.2600)

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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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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:

WHERE WAS THE P-I?

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.

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Complaint Hearing Set for Saturday, Oct. 21 (2-6 p.m.) at Town Hall in case of King County Sheriff’s Office vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) will hear a complaint from King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at Town Hall Seattle (Downstairs) on Saturday, Oct. 21, from 2-6 p.m.

Here is the Hearing Schedule. The hearing is open to the public and the press. Admission is free.

The complaint concerns the P-I’s ongoing series, “Conduct Unbecoming,” which alleges misbehavior and mismanagement in the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office contends that key aspects of some stories were “factually inaccurate,” “incomplete,” “misleading,” “biased,” “sensationalized,” “inflammatory,” or “unfair.”

The P-I responded to the complaint in a 17-page website statement, with copies to the WNC. (See below for links to original complaint and P-I response.) However, the P-I also stated that they would not participate in the public hearing.

In an Oct. 11 letter to P-I Associate Publisher Ken Bunting (cc’d to Publisher Roger Oglesby and Managing Editor David McCumber), WNC President Stephen Silha, WNC Treasurer Sandy Schoolfield, and WNC Complaints Committee Co-Chairs Chuck Rehberg and Cindy Zehnder wrote:

“We sincerely hope you will reconsider your decision not to attend the hearing. If you are there in person, you will be able to answer questions, clarify issues and respond to the Sheriff’s allegations. You will be better able to make your most persuasive case in an open public forum.

“If you are not there, we will read excerpts from your written response into the record. But obviously we cannot represent your position nearly as well as you and your colleagues could do in person. (OPTION: If you’d like to mark sections of your response that you’d like us to read as your opening, rebuttal and closing statements, please let us know and we’ll be glad to do that, as long as they fit within our time limits.)

“As you know, TVW will broadcast the hearing statewide, and other media will cover it. We also expect many journalism students and teachers to attend. It is a great educational opportunity for all citizens.

“We’ll have a table at Town Hall with the P-I‘s name on it. You may let us know your final decision anytime up to 1:30 p.m. on October 21. Your full participation in the News Council process would greatly benefit the public, the media — and democracy.”

The WNC also sent the P-I a copy of the final Complaint Questions that will be considered and voted on at the hearing:

WNC Complaint: King County Sheriff’s Office vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In the theme of the P-I’s stories, was there any journalistic “conduct unbecoming” in the P-I’s coverage of the King County Sheriff’s Office?

Scope: The King County Sheriff’s Office has formally complained to the Washington News Council that  more than 100 “negative” stories, columns and editorials – and even chat-room e-mails – have “unfairly disparaged the Sheriff’s Office.”  Much of the coverage was in a continuing series titled “Conduct Unbecoming.”  The complaint alleges that the P-I “has gone back 20 years and four sheriffs to portray events as representative of the current office and that the P-I characterized seven former deputies and one current deputy as representative of the Sheriff’s Office.  “This is not the case,” the complaint states.

The KCSO further states that the sheriff and others in the department have met with top editors and managers at the P-I to “try to correct erroneous information” and to “change the tone of the articles.  Rarely were any corrections made.  Usually we were ignored,” the sheriff’s cover letter says.

A thick “master binder” containing printouts of more than 100 P-I stories accompanied the complaint form.  KCSO was asked to select a representative sampling of stories, presented in the smaller binder and an amended complaint binder.  The P-I received copies all three binders and the WNC Complaints Committee assumes that if any pertinent articles were omitted, both the complainant and respondent have had a chance to further add to the materials.

Timeliness: While WNC complaint guidelines focus on the most recent six months, provisions clearly allow for consideration of materials presented over a longer time frame.  KCSO in its complaint included stories since Aug. 1, 2005. The Complaints Committee finds no reason to limit the scope of the complaint to six months.  Clearly the complainant was communicating with the respondent media outlet during the entire timeframe to seek resolution of issues.

Issues: The complainant states that P-I coverage “unfairly disparaged the Sheriff’s Office.” (Disparage: To belittle; to bring reproach or discredit; to lower the estimation of. — Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).  The complainant also states that the P-I coverage was inaccurate, incomplete, misleading, biased, sensationalized, inflammatory and unfair.

Additionally, the complaint states that ethical lapses occurred because stories wrongly damaged the organization’s reputation, that the media outlet failed to include balancing facts or information, that the media outlet denied access to respond to stories and that a conflict of interest existed with a P-I editor.

Stories and commentary referenced will help guide board members, but discussion is not limited to these items.

Discussion Areas / Questions:

A) Terminations (resignations and retirements) and pensions

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?

References: Stories,

“Conduct Unbecoming: How a disgraced deputy beat the system” Aug. 1, 2005

“Hefty pension to ex-deputy defended” Aug. 5, 2005

(Editorial) “Conduct Unbecoming: Restore trust” Aug. 4, 2005

“Deputy racked up complaints, lawsuits, then retired comfortably” Dec. 29, 2005

“Warnings preceded fatal shooting involving deputy’s live-in” Dec. 29, 2005

(Editorial) “Conduct Unbecoming: Civilian Oversight” Jan. 1, 2006

“Rahr offers reforms…” Jan. 2, 2006

(Column) “Sheriff vows meaningful reform”  Jan. 13, 2006

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?

References: Stories, same as above

B) Metro Transit Unit

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?

Reference: Story, “Some transit unit officers too aggressive…” July 21, 2006

4)  Was reporting of Deputy Abreu’s transfer inaccurate?

Reference: Story,

“Joseph Abreu III: Transferred into, then out of, transit unit ” July 21, 2006

Correction, Aug. 17, 2006 in Amended Complaint

E-mail exchanges, Aug. 17, 2006 in Amended Complaint

5)  Was reporting of the unit biased on behalf of critics by not including more comments from a supportive security liaison?

Reference: Story, “Some transit unit officers too aggressive…” July 21, 2006

C) Retaliation

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?

References: Stories,

“Suspected thugs…” March 8, 2006

“Off-duty cop terrified teen” March 9, 2006

“Sheriff’s Office may have mishandled…” March 22, 2006

Editorial: “Conduct Unbecoming: Review the review,” March 23, 2006

Also, story: “Missed chance to end violence,” July 21, 2006

D) Public meetings

7) Was P-I coverage of the public meeting in Kenmore biased and unfair?

References: Stories,

“Sheriff Rahr grilled…” April 5, 2006

Woodinville Weekly: “Wide support for sheriff…”

8) Was P-I coverage of a blue ribbon panel biased and misleading in overstating criticism of the Sheriff’s Office?

Reference: Story, “Residents frustrated…” June 23, 2006

E) Overview

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?

10) Did the P-I allow adequate access for comment and rebuttal by the KCSO?

11) Were acknowledged mistakes in coverage corrected adequately and in a timely manner?

F) Conflicts and appearance of conflicts

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?

Reference: Sheriff Rahr’s letter in amended complaint

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer Responds to Complaint from King County Sheriff’s Office; WNC President Stephen Silha Responds to P-I

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer responded on its website to the complaint filed by King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office. Here is a link to the P-I’s 17-page response:

Stephen Silha, President of the Washington News Council, issued the following statement:

“The Washington News Council is pleased that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has submitted such a thorough and thoughtful response to the complaint from the King County Sheriff’s Office concerning the P-I’s “Conduct Unbecoming” series.

“The P-I is clearly participating in the News Council’s process by submitting its written response to us, as well as by holding several meetings with the Sheriff’s Office, as we strongly encouraged.

“We are disappointed that the P-I has declared its intention not to participate in our Complaint Hearing on Oct. 21 at Town Hall. We hope the newspaper management will reconsider.

“Why should the P-I take part in the hearing? There are several compelling reasons, all of them in the public interest.

“First, our hearing is an opportunity for the P-I to be truly open and transparent, to address the Sheriff’s specific complaints in person, and to answer questions from our News Council members in public.

“Second, a News Council hearing is not a trial, but a conversation among those who care deeply about excellence and ethics in journalism. Half of our News Council Members are journalists (current or retired), and half are from other professions. All are people of the highest integrity. Any members with a perceived conflict of interest will recuse themselves from voting. In any case, their vote on the complaint carries no sanction or penalty.

“Third, the hearing is a chance for P-I editors and reporters to explain themselves in an open, civil forum. The press and public are invited, and the hearing will be broadcast statewide by TVW and archived at www.tvw.org.

“Fourth, many journalism students and teachers from around the state are expected to attend, making it an extraordinary educational experience. A DVD of the hearing will be made and used in student “mock news council hearings” in college and high school classes statewide in the years ahead.

“Finally, the P-I has strongly endorsed the recommendation of the Sheriff’s Blue Ribbon Panel to establish an independent outside oversight commission for the Sheriff’s Office. The Washington News Council is an independent outside citizens’ oversight commission for the news media.

“Public accountability is healthy for every institution — including the press.

“We invite and would welcome the P-I’s full participation at our Oct. 21 hearing.”

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WNC contracts with Spokane Spokesman-Review to review RPS coverage and issue independent report with recommendations

The Washington News Council has signed an agreement with the Spokane Spokesman-Review to conduct an independent outside review and analysis of that newspaper’s coverage of the River Park Square (RPS) garage controversy from 1994 through 2005.

Steve Smith, Editor of the Spokesman-Review, first approached the News Council in 2005 to propose the project. Smith had pledged shortly after coming to Spokane in 2002 to conduct such an independent review.

“The review will consider some of the allegations made against the news staff by RPS critics that our coverage was slanted and unethical because the newspaper is owned by the same people who own River Park Square,” Smith said in an Aug. 29, 2006, posting on the newspaper’s website.

John Hamer, Executive Director of the News Council, who signed the agreement along with WNC President Stephen Silha, said: “This is a daunting task, but the Washington News Council is honored that the editor of one of the largest newspapers in the state believes we have the credibility, the expertise and the professionalism to undertake this project.”

The review team will be co-chaired by: Cliff Rowe, founder of the journalism program at Pacific Lutheran University and a WNC Media Member Emeritus; and Chuck Nordhoff, former state director for U.S. Senator Slade Gorton and a WNC Public Member Emeritus.

Several other members of the current WNC Board of Directors will help oversee the project, including Media Members and Public Members.

The WNC has contracted with Bill Richards, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter, to do much of the research, interviews and writing. Richards formerly had a three-year contract with The Seattle Times to cover the joint-operating agreement dispute between The Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“This critique will give our reporters a chance to speak up for the first time, will give us a chance to acknowledge those failures that did occur (and apologize for them) and provide us with an ethical framework that will guide decisions when faced with similar conflicts of interest in the future,” Smith said in his website posting.

“Our goal is to make this an educational project and a case study that can be used in journalism classes in this state and around the nation,” said Hamer.

The review will be conducted pursuant to an agreement signed by representatives of the newspaper and the news council. The agreement is posted on the Spokesman-Review’s website.

The project will take several months to complete. To contribute information or comments, please email info@wanewscouncil.org or call 206.262.9793.

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New Media and Public Members Join WNC Board of Directors

Three new members were voted onto the WNC Board of Directors at our Annual Board Retreat on July 29, held at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. They are:

Margo Gordon, Public Member, who is returning to the Board after serving from 1998-2004. Margo is former Dean of the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. She stepped down as dean but continues to teach as a professor at the school. She also has taught journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School.

Jonathan Lawson, Media Member, who is Executive Director of Reclaim the Media and Public Affairs Specialist at the Washington Federation of State Employees/AFSCME. He is also host/producer of a weekly jazz program on KBCS-FM. He is a graduate of Guilford College and Harvard Divinity School.

Martin J. Neeb, Media Member, who is General Manager of KPLU-FM in Tacoma, a position he has held since 1981. He recently announced his retirement, effective in December 2006. He is a founding member of the City Club of Tacoma and has been an officer of West Coast Public Radio and the Arthritis Foundation.

The following two members joined the WNC Board earlier in 2006:

Mike Flynn, Media Member, who recently retired as President and Publisher of the Puget Sound Business Journal. He is also on the boards of Junior Achievement of Greater Puget Sound, Downtown Seattle Association, Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, and the Harbor Club.

Dr. Eddie Reed, Public Member, who just received his Ph.D. in Education from the University of Washington. He was a WNC board member from 1998 to 2004 and served as President of the organization for three years. Dr. Reed is now Instruction Coach and Professional Development Director for the Tukwila School District.

The Board Retreat was a day-long meeting that included welcoming remarks by CWU President Jerilyn McIntyre, and luncheon remarks by Ken Robertson, Editor of the Tri-City Herald. The Council voted to accept the complaint from the King County Sheriff’s Office against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It heard reports from several task groups and committees. And it watched a videotape of the Minnesota News Council’s hearing in the case of Northwest Airlines vs. WCCO-TV, plus a Mike Wallace “60 Minutes” segment on that case, in which Wallace endorses news councils.

The following officers were re-elected for one-year terms:

President – Stephen Silha (Media Member)

Vice President- Steve Boyer (Public Member)

Vice President – Dave Schaefer (Media Member)

Treasurer – Sandy Schoolfield (Public Member)

Secretary – Suzie Burke (Public Member)

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Panel on Spokesman-Review’s Jim West Coverage Draws 250

The Washington News Council’s Public Forum on Wednesday, Feb. 8, to discuss the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s controversial coverage of Mayor Jim West, was a huge success.

NOTE: TVW broadcast the event statewide. (If you would like to order a VHS or DVD, please call 206.262.9793)

Nearly 250 people attended the panel discussion in Whitworth College’s Weyerhaeuser Hall from 7-9 pm. An overflow room held another two dozen attendees who watched a closed-circuit screen. In addition to TVW, the event was filmed by Spokane’s local-access channel, Whitworth College, and a crew from “Frontline” doing a documentary for fall broadcast.

The panelists were:

  • Jack Geraghty, former Spokane Mayor, former County Commissioner and former Spokane Chronicle reporter
  • Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
  • Ted McGregor, Editor and Publisher of The Inlander, Spokane’s alternative weekly
  • Steve Smith, Editor of the Spokesman-Review
  • Ginny Whitehouse, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Whitworth College

Moderator John Irby, Associate Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication, Washington State University (and a Media Member of the Washington News Council), asked each panelist an opening question, invited comments from other panelists, and posed follow-up questions.

Written questions from the audience were also accepted. Dozens of students from Whitworth, Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University, and Washington State University attended the event and many submitted questions for the panel.

Washington News Council President Stephen Silha (whose father founded the Silha Center in Minneapolis), Media Member Chuck Rehberg, Public Member Sandy Schoolfield, and Lucy Innes, the WNC’s administrative assistant, also attended. WNC Executive Director John Hamer welcomed the crowd and showed a DVD explaining the News Council’s operations.

Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles, Editorial Page Editor Doug Floyd, Attorney Duane Swinton and other top staff from the newspaper also attended.

In an email to the WNC after the event, attendee William McCrory, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wrote: “We want to thank you and the Washington News Council for presenting one of the most powerful and practical discussions about ethics I’ve heard in a long time. Though the focus was the Spokesman Review’s methods and coverage, the underlying ethical questions and discussions relate to many areas of business and public administration. The five panelists had obviously been carefully selected to offer as many different perspectives as possible.  Moderator John Irby kept the panelists on topic and on time, and for the most part, the panelists were focused, concise, and complete in their answers. Questions and comments were courteous but to the point, and so were the answers.”

In the Feb. 9 edition of The Spokesman-Review, staff writer Jim Camden wrote: “The panel didn’t always agree on the lessons that journalists might take away from The Spokesman-Review’s 2005 investigation that found West had used his city computer to meet young men with whom he had sex, and offered some of them gifts or city positions.”

To read Camden’s full story, go to:

http://www.spokesmanreview.com/jimwest/story.asp?ID=020906_forum

Camden noted that Jane Kirtley of the Silha Center for Media Ethics, and Ted McGregor of The Inlander both criticized the newspaper’s use of a forensic computer expert who posed as a high-school student in a gay chat room and communicated directly with West.

Police sometimes use deception with suspects but “journalists should not be cops,” Kirtley said. McGregor added: “It’s a slippery slope.”

Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith vigorously defended the newspaper’s methods, arguing that the deception was a last resort to get “absolute, positive, irrefutable proof” that West was engaged in illegal activity with young people. Smith noted that the newspaper had followed the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code and the PoynterInstitute’s guidelines for reporting in such situations.

Whitworth Communication Professor Ginny Whitehouse defended the Spokesman-Review’s practices, saying:  “I don’t think there were alternative means” of getting the story on West and noting that local police were not exploring the allegations.

Former Mayor Jack Geraghty said the main lesson for public officials was that they couldnot expect to have a private life.

In closing remarks, Hamer noted that part of the Washington News Council’s mission is “to provide a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and performance.” He added: “The discussion we’ve had tonight is exactly what the Washington News Council is all about.”

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