The Washington News Council Board of Directors will hold a hearing Saturday morning on the Seattle campus of the University of Washington on an ethics complaint made against National Public Radio affiliate KUOW-FM Seattle, the proceedings to be presided over by former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander.
With tomorrow’s hearing, the WNC seeks to offer closure—though its final decision will not be binding in a legal sense—in a dispute between KUOW and the Vitae Foundation, a story we have followed since Vitae filed its complaint with the WNC in June of last year.
The entire matter originated in a KUOW on-air report from April 2011 at a time when the state legislature was considering a law to increase requirements for organizations advertising pregnancy counseling services. From our article of July 5, 2011:
In April, Seattle public radio station KUOW-FM landed itself in the middle an ethics controversy sparked by a segment compiled by reporter Meghan Walker in mid-April, one that took aim at billboards appearing in Seattle for a website—YourOptions.com—that offered options for women wrestling with unplanned pregnancies.
The saga that has unfolded since the segment was broadcast from studios on the campus of the University of Washington may serve as a lesson to what happens when a business with access to publicly-funded airwaves flexes its considerable political muscle to ward off competition.
YourOptions.com was created by the Vitae Foundation and refers women to Care Net, a national network of limited-service pregnancy centers. Walker’s piece used the appearance of Seattle-area billboards advertising YourOptions.com as a starter for talking about legislation Planned Parenthood has been pushing in Olympia to require limited-service pregnancy centers to clearly state their ideological position on the issue of abortion.
Vitae and other limited-service providers have challenged such proposals on free speech grounds, an argument Walker inadvertently underscored by failing to contact Vitae for the KUOW segment. Walker did, however, give Planned Parenthood Seattle public affairs director Kristen Glundberg-Prossor ample airtime to conduct an informal (and misleading) critique of the content on YourOptions.com.
Since last summer, although the matter has grabbed the attention of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ombudsman as well as being pushed forward for further action by the nonpartisan WNC’s board of directors—a group that includes well-respected civic giant Bill Gates, Sr.—until The Washington Times filed an article Thursday, NW Daily Marker has been the only outlet—local or otherwise—to cover this story.
In tomorrow’s three-hour hearing—an event that is open to the public and the media—each party will be afforded an opportunity to make opening statements, rebuttals and closing remarks, and after listening to a period of open comment from attendees to the hearing, the WNC Hearing Board will take a vote on basic questions of whether KUOW acted unethically.
Did KUOW have an obligation to contact the subjects of their news story—YourOptions.com, the Vitae Foundation and CareNet—for comment prior to broadcast?
Does a news organization have a responsibility to offer equal time to both sides in a story, particularly in the case that the reporter’s primary source of analysis—in this case, Planned Parenthood—has a clear incentive to give a negative interpretation on the subject of the reporting?
Beyond the questions about the accuracy of KUOW’s reporting from the specific complaint on the table in tomorrow’s hearing—were there inaccuracies in KUOW’s reporting, and if so, were the errors substantial enough to warrant an on-air correction?—tomorrow’s hearing will open the door to questions specific to journalists working in the age of new media.
In the days of yore, when a newspaper got it wrong, the ethical remedy was to print a correction. In the divergent media era, however, a news outlet whose primary media is broadcast radio—as with KUOW—but which also operates secondary media such as a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed—is it proper to correct errors in on-air reporting but only run the correction on a website? Or must an error only repaired if it is made through the same media and with the same attention drawn to it as the inaccurate story?
In case of the Vitae story, KUOW program director Guy Nelson did eventually conduct an interview with Debbie Stokes, a representative of Vitae. A transcript of the interview was posted to the KUOW website but the station did not broadcast any portion of the interview. The website post also did not mention that the previous on-air report by Walker had contained inaccurate information. The WNC Hearing Board will explicitly ask whether Nelson’s actions were sufficient to rectify any imbalance, if the board determines that one exists.
The WNC tackles the bigger questions, too, giving it a boost (one hopes) to become a respected traffic cop on questions of media ethics, with any luck operating with the full validation from the hundreds of news organizations feeding into the Northwest region’s journalistic enterprise.
The WNC hearing will be held in Room 120 of the Communications Building on the University of Washington’s Seattle campus, and the entire event is open to the public and the media. Doors will open at 8:30 a.m., WNC President John Hamer will make opening remarks at 9:00 a.m. after which the hearing will be called to order.