The newsroom of Seattle television station KIRO-TV has landed in hot water with some teachers, parents, and staff at a local elementary school over airing stories described in 15 independent complaints lodged with the Washington News Council as “incomplete, biased, inflammatory, and unfair.”
At issue are “investigative reports” filed by KIRO7 Eyewitness News reporter Chris Halsne that aired May 10-11 in which Halsne’s report alleges students were “manhandled” by Chester Harris, an African-American custodian working at Leschi Elementary School.
In the on-air stories, Halsne supported his allegations of Harris’ aggression with undercover video in which he purported to have caught Harris grabbing a child. View the video and make your own judgment, but it appears to have been less of a rough grabbing and more of a gentle attempt to calm an upset young boy. In fact, the mother of the alleged victim took the same point of view, something we found in the materials provided to us by the Washington News Council—a nonpartisan journalistic accountability organization—just as Seattle Weekly’s Nina Shapiro did when she wrote last week about the complaints filed with the News Council against KIRO:
Last month, KIRO TV aired an “investigation” that purported to expose alleged bullying by a Leschi Elementary janitor. The piece touted a video it had obtained, via hidden camera, of the janitor “grabbing a child on the schoolyard”–which was a pretty strange way to characterize the footage. Stranger yet was what the janitor’s angry defenders, who are now pressing complaints with the non-profit Washington News Council, point out he was doing.
According to none other than the mother of the boy supposedly grabbed, janitor Chester Harris was breaking up a fight. And she thanked Harris for it, according to a follow-up piece KIRO ran just two days later, after the station started getting complaints. “Had my son hit that boy, he would have got into trouble,” Michelle Ruiz told KIRO.
The News Council’s materials include a letter from Harris’ union—the International Union of Operating Engineers—to KIRO that alleges Ruiz spoke to the station prior to the first airing of the story, though her perspective was not initially included in Halsne’s reporting.
The complaint materials also show that the Seattle Public Schools and Seattle Police Department each conducted investigations of Harris, one involving an earlier accusation of physical aggression. Neither found any evidence Harris had engaged in any wrongdoing.
In a letter sent from Seattle Public Schools to KIRO on May 11, district official Holly Ferguson contradicted Halsne’s interpretation of his undercover video, writing:
“[F]rom [KIRO’s] video it appears Mr. Harris and another adult acted appropriately to intervene with an upset student. Mr. Harris is well respected in the school community and our staff and families are very upset by your coverage.”
Ferguson also suggested that it was Halsne, not Harris, who crossed the line by disregarding school policies designed to keep children safe:
“[W]e believe it is inappropriate for you to have include under-cover [sic] camera footage of our students that clearly identifies their face, without parental permission… The families of these children are very upset and our principal reports that one of the students was in tears today as a result of your having him on television last night.
[F]rom the video it appears that someone brought a hidden camera into Leschi. As you may know, all visitors, including parents, must sign in and state their reason for visiting the school. In this case, clearly no one knew about the filming, which raises concerns for us about the safety of our children.”
The complaints lodged against KIRO will be the subject of the formal Washington News Council complaint hearing beginning 9:00 a.m. Saturday in the lower floor of Town Hall. The hearing is open to the public, free, and doors open at 8:45 a.m. Parking in paid lots and on the street is available.
To date, KIRO has not responded to any of the News Council’s communications on the matter.
We reached out by email to KIRO-TV news director Todd Mokhtari to ask whether the station would appear at the hearing, but did not receive a response.