The concept of news councils and other media accountability systems has been frequently discussed in the pages of MEDIA ETHICS, notably by the late Claude-Jean Bertrand. One of the few active news councils in the United States, the Washington News Council (WNC) provides such a system. Founded in 1998, the WNC is an independent forum for media fairness. A 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization, its mission is "to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance." It provides a "forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics, performance and accountability." The WNC considers itself to be a kind of "outside ombudsman" for the state's media.
While there is considerable awareness of the functions of news councils, including statistics of matters considered and results of hearings or other adjudications, there is much less knowledge and understanding of how one actually conducts its business. This article is a brief case study of what can happen when a media outlet is resistant and the news council process isn't allowed to play out.
On New Year's Eve, December 31, 2008, at about 3 p.m., the Washington News Council hand-delivered a formal written complaint to KIRO7 Eyewitness News. KIRO is one of the major network-affiliated (CBS) television stations in the Seattle area. The complaint originally was filed with the WNC by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed, whose office oversees state elections, on December 18, 2008.
Reed's complaint concerned two investigative stories broadcast by KIRO7 just before the November 2008 election. The reporter was Chris Halsne, a long-time investigative reporter for the station. The first report, aired on October 15th, alleged that about 24,000 felons (who had lost their right to vote following conviction) had been issued ballots and at least 6,800 may have been allowed to vote in the November 2008 election. In the broadcast, Halsne interviewed a woman on camera who supposedly was a convicted felon but had voted anyway.
Almost all voting in Washington State now is conducted by mail. Ballots are sent to all registered voters, who typically mail them back to designated county or other offices, although there are "drop off" boxes and special arrangements for the vision-impaired. Non-citizens and those convicted of most felonies are not allowed to register and vote, although felons can regain that right if they have served their sentences and/or paid restitution. A lengthy approval process is required in order for this right to be restored, including a court ruling.
The second report, aired on November 3rd, 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 for several years.
After the stories ran, the Secretary of State's office, the media, and other government officials were deluged with angry phone calls and e-mails from citizens who had seen the stories and were outraged. Several prominent bloggers picked up on the stories and harshly criticized Reed's office.
The Secretary's communications director, Dave Ammons-who had been the Associated Press' chief political writer and columnist in the state capital of Olympia for more than 20 years and is a widely respected career journalist-contacted Halsne right after the stories ran and told him that:
a) The "felon" was not a felon. She had been convicted only of a misdemeanor, so she never lost her right to vote.
b) 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.
Ammons also issued a press release noting these and other inaccuracies in the stories, but it didn't get wide exposure. The release quoted Elections Director Nick Handy, who called the KIRO story on felons "seriously flawed." Handy said: "The KIRO data stretches back to the 1800s and contains no information about whether voting rights have been restored. Most of the cases involve files that have already been closed by the Department of Corrections."
Reed sent an e-mail to many of his supporters, saying of the KIRO stories: "We were appalled. We had been talking with the reporter, Chris Halsne, for a month. This report was so reckless that other major news organizations-including The Seattle Times, KING TV (NBC affiliate) and KOMO TV (ABC affiliate) never used the story."
In conversations with Ammons, Halsne responded that he stood by his work and the station would not air any corrections or take the stories off their Web site. This answer was, to put it mildly, received with surprise and disappointment by Ammons and Reed.
In a phone conversation with the WNC, Ammons said: "I was really flummoxed by their response." He noted that in his entire career in journalism, standard practice was to respond fully to any complaint, especially if it concerned factual accuracy-and to run corrections if merited.
After about six weeks of deliberation, Reed and his office staff decided to file a formal complaint with the Washington News Council. After careful consideration, WNC members accepted the complaint for the Council's process-which simply meant they thought it raised serious questions about journalistic ethics and practices. At that stage, the WNC makes no decision on the merits of the complaint.
Past history was a factor in considering the Reed complaint against KIRO. In 2003, the Washington Beef Commission and the Washington Dairy Products Commission had filed a complaint against KIRO7 for a three-part Chris Halsne series on "downer" (ill) cattle being sold to slaughterhouses and entering the consumer food marketplace. At a public hearing on June 14, 2003, the Council had upheld that complaint on virtually all of the major issues involved. But KIRO had boycotted the hearing, although they posted written responses on their Web site, which were read into the record at the proceeding. KIRO staffers also went on local talk radio to denounce the News Council. The Beef and Dairy Commissions, however, felt vindicated by the WNC hearing. (See Testimonials at www.wanewscouncil.org.)
On Reed's WNC complaint form, he argued that the KIRO stories were "factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory, and unfair." He also said the stories "wrongly damaged" his office and "failed to include balancing facts or information." He added that the reporter "misrepresented" himself by saying he planned to do a "good news" story when he called to schedule an interview with Reed in Olympia, telling Ammons that Washington was "one of the good states" in the U. S. in elections oversight. So Ammons said they opened their doors to Halsne and fully cooperated.
"He charmed his way into our office," Ammons said. "We were a total open book with Chris. Then he [expletive deleted] us. That's why we felt even more wounded."
Also of importance in this process is that Reed had signed the WNC's waiver form pledging that he would not sue KIRO7. The WNC's process is an alternative to litigation, which is intended to help both sides in a dispute like this one. In a cover letter to the complaint, the WNC asked KIRO for a written response within 10 days and said that, in accord with WNC's published guidelines, the two sides would have 30 days to try to resolve the matter before publicity was given to the dispute. KIRO did not respond to the letter and did not return any of the WNC's repeated phone calls or e-mails over the next several weeks.
However, a week after the complaint was hand-delivered to KIRO, the station's General Manager, Eric Lerner, called Sam Reed's office and asked for a personal meeting. On January 21, 2009, Lerner and three other KIRO employees-News Director Todd Mokhtari, Producer Bill Benson, and Reporter Chris Halsne-drove from Seattle to Olympia to meet with Reed and his staff.
According to Ammons, that meeting was a direct result of Reed's filing the complaint. Reed and his colleagues clearly explained the many inaccuracies and misleading elements in Halsne's two stories. They provided documented evidence that Halsne got the facts wrong.
Again according to Ammons' account of the meeting, the KIRO team listened politely. Halsne defended his stories and his methodology. Lerner then stated that he did not believe that any corrections, clarifications or retractions were needed and the stories would remain on the station's Web site.
Reed and his staff were, once again, astounded at the KIRO stance, Ammons said. They had pointed out serious faults in Halsne's stories, but the station's top management had stonewalled and chosen to "stand by their stories."
In an e-mail sent to Lerner after the meeting, with a copy to the News Council, Reed said:
The true thrust of our objection to your stories is the message that ballots are carelessly being sent to felon voters who are not entitled to vote, and to persons who are deceased.
In fact, each of the 24,000 "felons" referenced in your story is a valid registered voter in the state of Washington. Each is legally entitled to receive a ballot and vote in the election until someone presents a voter registration challenge to that voter and proves that the voter is not qualified.
We do routine felon checks several times a year. When we have reliable information that a felon is not entitled to vote, that voter is sent our information and advised that he or she is entitled to a hearing to contest our findings. It is only after this critical "due process" function is completed that we remove a voter from the voter rolls.
If any person or agency has information suggesting that any of these citizens is not a qualified voter, procedures are in place for that information to be brought forward, the registration of that voter challenged, and the voter to be removed from the rolls if the challenge is sustained.
So far as we can determine, neither KIRO nor this office has any such information.
As such, we continue to feel that the stories are not a fair and accurate account of the status of these voters.
And, we strongly believe that the issuance of the story just prior to the 2008 general election served to undermine the trust and confidence of Washington voters in this election based on information that was not factually correct. I personally got numerous e-mails and calls of concern, including some from my close friends!
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.
Given the fact that the two sides were still negotiating, the News Council extended its normal 30-day resolution period for another two weeks, until February 14, 2009. Throughout the entire period, despite Reed's arguments, KIRO's management refused to either remove the stories from their Web site or take any other action-such as further investigation resulting in their story being significantly buttressed, a correction, retraction, apology, or follow-up story to set the record straight.
Reed's next option was to ask for a News Council hearing, at which both sides would have the opportunity to "make their case" in a public forum. The WNC's 20 members (half from the media, half from other professions or occupations) would listen to each side, discuss the merits and vote openly on the accuracy and fairness of the stories. WNC hearings are filmed and broadcast statewide by TVW, Washington state's public-affairs network, and generally receive considerable publicity in other news media.
The News Council started to make arrangements for such a forum. However, on February 17, the following e-mail was sent to the News Council by Dave Ammons, Reed's communications director, followed by a hard-copy letter dated February 18:
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. [Emphasis added.]
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 and its executive director, John Hamer, 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 or John that we have decided to suspend our complaint.
At that point, the News Council had little choice but to accept Reed's decision not to go forward to a formal public hearing. All WNC members understood his concerns, but were disappointed by his decision. News Council hearings are not a "trial," but an open conversation about media ethics, standards and performance. They help educate and inform citizens and journalists.
A public hearing, even if KIRO boycotted the proceeding (as they did in 2003), would allow for public airing of the facts of the dispute, candid discussion by members of the Council, and broader public understanding of the responsibility of major news media organizations to "get it right."
The WNC believes that so long as news organizations resist true public accountability, and the victims of media malpractice decide not to stand up to them, shoddy and dishonest journalism will only continue and likely get worse. The News Council process isn't perfect, but includes an open, procedurally fair and formal debate that gets wide publicity and can have lasting impact.
The way to stop a schoolyard bully, as every grade-school teacher knows, is to stand up to the bully. Victims of media bullies should take a lesson: Standing up to the media when they get it wrong is the only thing that will ever change the bullies' behavior.
The Washington News Council still plans to make constructive public use of this complaint, even though there was no formal hearing or resolution. This case will 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, fairness and accuracy in future generations of journalists.
In addition, the WNC is inviting the public to be part of a "Citizens Online News Council" and conduct a "virtual hearing." The WNC has posted the KIRO stories, Sam Reed's complaint and letter, and some key questions at www.wanewscouncil.org. Readers of this article are invited to view and read the stories, read the complaint, and "vote" on the questions, plus offer any other feedback. All comments and suggestions are welcome.
This may be a "first" for any news or press council anywhere in the world. The goal is to provide true public accountability for the news media-which is the only way they can ever hope to regain lost public trust.