In 1985, when singer-songwriter Tom Paxton wrote "In ten years we’re gonna have one million lawyers...How much can a poor nation stand?," one of the few alternatives to the courts for those who felt aggrieved by the news media, the National News Council, had just closed shop. The "invisible hand" presence of competing media that might be happy to savage their opponents had dwindled every decade since World War II. Since 1985, while boycotts, occasional legislation, lower advertising revenues, declines in circulation and ratings, and other examples of dissatisfaction with U. S. news media in general or with specific media outlets have become more common, and the courts have remained the only venue available for most complaints against the media.
Media Ethics magazine has always been interested in non-judicial solutions to matters that involve holding journalism to the standards that the profession of journalism espouses. The many articles we published about news councils and other "media accountability systems" (M*A*S) by Claude-Jean Bertrand before his death in 2007 testify to our continuing interest in these alternative paths toward improvement of and adherence to high ethical standards.
Today in the United States, although there are several journalism reviews being regularly published, and there are remnants of formerly active state news councils, currently only the Washington News Council (WNC) invites verifiable complaints against media in the Northwestern U. S. and holds formal hearings, typically with the cooperation of both the complainant—who must agree to abide by the WNC’s decision and not use evidence garnered at the hearing to later take their case to court—and the media outlet involved. Although the National News Council (1973-1984) had held some 242 hearings during its lifetime, other news councils have had a much lower profile (and the pioneering Minnesota News Council recently ceased operation) and few of those inside or outside the media who are interested in this approach to the application of media ethics have had experience with a news council hearing.
As a result, in recent years Media Ethics has published a number of articles dealing with Washington News Council hearings and decisions, and is doing so again with this case study. It considers any such reports and discussions to be in accord with its goals and purposes, and with the broader matter of self- rather than governmental-policing of institutions that have freedom under the First Amendment to the Constitution. True, opposition to any external regulation of the news media carried the day and resulted in the paucity of media cooperation with the NNC. But it is significant that two very-well-known individual journalists who originally had argued against the National News Council—Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace—eventually changed their minds and later supported the concept of news councils. In addition, the growth of the concept of ombudsmen and "public editors" in the U. S. (and many other M*A*S abroad) shows that being held to account can be for the benefit of all.
The hearing described in this case study was open to the public, with possibly two dozen citizens (including this editor) attending, along with a representative of the complainant and the news director of the station involved. A precise schedule, which included opening and rebuttal statements, questions by the WNC Hearing Board, and discussion by the Hearing Board, followed by closing statements, voting, and presentation of results of the Board’s votes was provided to all present. Presiding over the three-hour March 31, 2012 hearing by the 11 member WNC Hearing Board was former chief justice of the Washington Supreme Court, Gerry Alexander.
In addition to this introduction, the case study is in four parts: an impartial description of the case in the form of a CPB Report by Joel Kaplan, Ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; the specific questions that the WNC Hearing Board was asked to decide upon; Joel Kaplan’s CPB follow-up Report on the hearing committee’s "verdict;" and his response to criticism of his "verdict" report by a citizen listener to KUOW (a public radio station Seattle that broadcast the original story) and who attended the hearing. Neither of Kaplan’s reports has been modified, except to remove duplication and the questions are quoted verbatim. The Washington News Council accounts of the hearing, with complete vote results and links to the coverage is at http://wanewscouncil.org/2012/04/02/complaint-against-kuow-largely-upheld-a-wnc-hearing. In addition, a video recording of the hearing can be found on the WNC's Web site, http://wanewscouncil.org/2012/04/24/vitae-foundation=v=kuow-video-of-the-hearing/.The News Council specifically invites all readers of Media Ethics to watch the video and give the News Council their feedback.
CPB Ombudsman Report: Vitae Caring Foundation vs. KUOW
By Joel Kaplan
March 16, 2012
Nearly a year ago public radio station KUOW in Seattle ran a story about the controversy surrounding limited service pregnancy centers and whether their advertising is misleading.
The KUOW story begins by focusing on billboards that have been placed advocating for a website, YourOptions.com, aimed at giving pregnant women alternatives to abortion. "But some say the billboards are misleading," the story asserts.
KUOW reporter Meghan Walker then interviews Kristen Glundberg-Prossor, the director of Planned Parenthood in Seattle, at the Planned Parenthood office. There the two of them are looking up YourOptions.com on Ms. Glundberg-Prossor's computer while she says, "This does not really seem to have all the options. If abortion is one of the options, let me look here and see."
Glundberg-Prossor continues to say, "When we're looking at this website we just want them to give full disclosure and be up front about what kind of information they're going to provide."
Ms. Walker's story then continues:
"The website was created by the Vitae Foundation, a religious group aimed at reducing abortion rates. YourOptions.com refers pregnant women to Care Net. That's a national chain that provides some pregnancy services. But Glundberg-Prossor says Care Net's pro-life agenda isn't as clear as it should be in their advertising."
The story also quotes Dr. Jeff Smith, who works with Life Choices, an Eastern Washington limited-services pregnancy center.
Nevertheless, there were several problems with this story according to Deborah L. Stokes, chief operating officer of Vitae.
First and foremost, Ms. Walker never contacted the Vitae Foundation for comment.
Second, the YourOptions.com website does list abortion as an option.
Finally, the Vitae Foundation says it is an educational, not-for-profit organization, not a religious one.
Ms. Stokes complained to KUOW, and six days later Ms. Walker responded. In her response, she said, "I recognize I could have taken an extra step to contact you for my story."
However, in terms of the two other complaints, Ms. Walker said she based her conclusion that the organization is religious because of a declaration on the website that states: "Our inter-denominational organization subscribes to the belief that life is ordained by God, with an inalienable right to be protected. This conviction is at the heart of everything Vitae embarks upon as an organization."
Ms. Walker said that description, as well as a featured quote by Sarah Palin, "gives the reader clues that your organization is indeed religiously founded."
Finally, Ms. Walker said the story never explicitly says "your website fails to address abortion."
"I regret not contacting your organization for this story," Ms. Walker wrote. “However, I think our characterization of the Vitae Foundation is accurate and the story presents both arguments to the question of transparency in advertising."
The Vitae Foundation then asked KUOW to appoint an ombudsman to investigate its complaint. However, KUOW does not employ an ombudsman, and I had not yet been hired by CPB to investigate complaints such as this. Vitae also asked KUOW to make an on-air correction. Instead, KUOW did issue an addendum to the story that was posted on its website. As part of that correction, KUOW wrote, "The Vitae Foundation does list abortion as an option on its website."
But while KUOW does not have an ombudsman, the state of Washington does have something that no other state now has: a news council. The idea of a news council actually stemmed from the 1942 Hutchins Commission report, which recommended the establishment of a new and independent agency to appraise the performance of the press. A National News Council was established in 1973 and lasted until 1984.
Minnesota created the first state news council in 1971; it was made up of 24 members—half from the media and half from the public. That news council closed last year.
The Washington News Council was patterned after the one in Minnesota and established in 1998. Half of the council members are current or former media professionals and half are from other professions. Those members share a belief that "fair, accurate and balanced news media are vital to our democracy."
The Council also supports transparency, accountability and openness in media organizations and among individual journalists.
The website for the Washington News Council is http://wanewscouncil.org/
The Vitae Foundation has filed a formal complaint against KUOW, and a hearing is scheduled for March 31. Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander will be presiding at the hearing.
Detailed information about the hearing that includes both sides can be found at http://wanewscouncil.org/blog/
I am looking forward to the hearing and to see how an organization like the Washington News Council works. Perhaps it could become a model for those upset with public media and what they perceive as a lack of objectivity and balance. I am also prepared to weigh in on this complaint, but I wish to see how the news council resolves this case first.
I will revisit this incident following the council's decision.
The Questions to Be Decided
(The following questions were distributed to everyone entering the hearing room, and WNC plans to tabulate the "votes" received from audience members after the Council’s verdicts were announced at the end of the meeting.)
Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or CareNet for comment before airing the April 13, 2011, story?
Did KUOW have a responsibility to give equal airtime to both sides, Vitae Foundation as well as Planned Parenthood, in a news story about Vitae’s advertising campaign?
Did KUOW’s story accurately characterize the abortion information that was accessible on the YourOptions.com website?
Did the original KUOW news story contain substantive errors worthy of public, on-air corrections and/or clarifications?
Did the follow-up interview by [KUOW News Director Guy Nelson] with Debbie Stokes, posted on KUOW’s website on Sept. 30, 2011, sufficiently acknowledge and/or clarify errors in the original copy?
Did KUOW have any responsibility to provide Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original story aired?
CPB Ombudsman Report: Vitae vs. KUOW, the Verdict
By Joel Kaplan
April 4, 2012
The Washington News Council met on March 31 to handle the complaint brought by the Vitae Caring Foundation against public radio station KUOW-FM for a story it deemed to be unfair because of its failure to contact representatives of the foundation or to promptly correct an error in the story on air.
The 11-member council that heard the complaint voted unanimously that KUOW had a journalistic responsibility to contact representatives of the Vitae Foundation before it ran its story. The council also voted 10-0 with one abstention that KUOW's original story contained errors that were substantial enough that they should have been corrected on-air.
In the other four questions that were before the council, it voted 8-1 with 2 abstentions that the KUOW story did not accurately characterize the abortion information available on the YourOptions.com website; voted 5-3 with 3 abstentions that KUOW had a responsibility to give equal airtime to both Vitae and Planned Parenthood in its story; voted 6-4 with 1 abstention that the follow-up interview conducted by news director Guy Nelson with Vitae executive Debbie Stokes did not significantly acknowledge or clarify the errors in the original story; and voted 10-1 that KUOW did not have a responsibility to provide the Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original story aired.
Here is a summary of the proceedings:
The hearing was presided over by former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. The Washington News Council is the last news council remaining in the United States and is designed to hear complaints from citizens and organizations that feel they have been unfairly treated by the news media. One of the strengths of the news council is that its members include representatives from both the media and the general public.
To a great extent, the role of the news council is similar to the one played by the ombudsman. Had I been asked to opine on this case and given access to the same amount of information the council received, I would have come to similar conclusions.
Clearly, KUOW should have attempted to contact the Vitae Foundation before running the story, an act that its reporter readily acknowledges. And once it was pointed out that abortion services is listed on its website, that part of the story should have been corrected.
I also strongly believe that the mistakes made in the story should have been promptly corrected on-air. The mistakes in this story were significant enough that the listening public had a right to know the facts. Correcting the story online is a necessary step, but is not sufficient.
So while KUOW should have corrected its story on air, I also strongly believe that the radio station was under no obligation to provide the Vitae Foundation with additional on-air coverage to make up for its mistakes.
A credible and responsible news organization promptly corrects its mistakes. It does not trade its most valuable commodity—its airtime—as a way to apologize by promoting a story on an organization that does not pass the newsworthy test.
Addendum by Joel Kaplan
April 6, 2012
Kathy Gill, who attended the Washington News Council hearing on the complaint lodged against KUOW by the Vitae Caring Foundation, took issue with my characterization of the council's vote on question 1. The first question asked, "Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or Care Net for comment before airing the April 13, 2011 news story?" The council voted unanimously that KUOW did.
But Ms. Gill said KUOW did comply with question 1 because the station attempted to contact a Care Net organization, which did not respond to inquiries. "As you know, if organizations waited until they got a response before running a story, those who are uncooperative would be able to pocket veto ANY story that they did not want to see the light of day," Ms. Gill wrote.
Ms. Gill also took issue with the notion that abortion was ever listed as an option of the YourOptions.com website, at least on the home page.
"Finally, if it is unfair or incorrect to characterize an organization that grew out of a church movement, has been endorsed by the Archbishop of Kansas and receives extensive funding from churches as a religious group, then I don't understand the phrase."
I passed on Ms. Gill's complaint to John Hamer, the executive director of the Washington News Council. Ms. Gill has also complained to Mr. Hamer, saying that the panel that heard the case was "overwhelmingly male and old. If it was supposed to reflect community values, it fell very short. It had very few people with news media experience, which means to me that it could only act as a reflection of the community. It didn't." She also complained that the questions the panel were supposed to answer were prejudicial.
"This was a tempest in a teapot stirred with rigor by Vitae. I'm quite certain it generated a wave of individual contributions, as it was designed to do," Ms. Gill wrote Mr. Hamer.
According to Mr. Hamer, Ms. Gill came late to the hearing so did not hear the biographies of the board members, a majority of whom have extensive news media experience. He said that there are several women members of the board, including its chair, but they were unable to be at Saturday's hearing.
As for the specific complaints Ms. Gill registered in her email to the ombudsman, Mr. Hamer passed those on to Debbie Stokes, the executive vice president of the Vitae Foundation.
Ms. Stokes said that since the first third of the report made false assertions about Vitae and its advertising, "here is where KUOW should have contacted Vitae but failed." Ms. Stokes added that Ms. Gill was incorrect about her characterization of the website and said that the YourOptions website, while not promoting abortion, did list abortion as an option.
Finally, Ms. Stokes questioned the relevance of Ms. Gill's comments regarding Vitae's support from churches. "These comments have no relevance to the journalistic issue that was before the Washington News Council," Ms. Stokes said.
Coda by the Editor
At 5:10 a.m., on April 6, 2012, the editor of Media Ethics heard an on-air correction over KUOW similar to that on the station’s Web site.