The Washington News Council, a non-profit group devoted to standards and integrity in journalism, held a formal hearing Saturday morning (June 16) at Town Hall Seattle on a complaint brought by the Leschi Elementary School Community and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609 against KIRO 7 Eyewitness News. For those on the Hearings Board, including myself, it was a disagreeable experience which, one hopes, may serve the long-term cause of better local TV-news journalism.
The Hearings Board, composed of present and former News Council board members, was chaired by Karen Seinfeld, former chief judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, and also included Sandy Schoolfield, the founding WNC board president; Steven Silha, former Christian Science Monitor reporter; Ed Reed, Cleveland High School assistant principal; Steve Boyer, vice president of Hill&Knowlton and a former Northwest daily newspaper editor; David Schaefer, Woodland Park Zoo communications director and former Seattle Times reporter; John Knowlton, a journalism instructor at Green River Community College; Chuck Rehberg, former associate editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review; WNC President John Hamer; and myself, a former board member. Hamer recused himself from voting.
The formal complaint involved a May incident in which KIRO 7 and investigative reporter Chris Halsne prepared and ran a three-part primetime news story alleging that the Leschi Elementary School custodian had manhandled at least one child and had a record of previous misconduct, to which neither the school nor the School District had responded. KIRO 7 filmed the school, custodian, and students from an unobserved camera.
It did not doublecheck the original charge by a KIRO source whose prior disruptive activity had caused her to have a restraining order placed agaiinst her from coming onto Leschi Elementary School grounds. The person making the original charge had first called KING-TV, which refused to give it credence.
After the stories about the alleged rough treatment appeared, KIRO deleted comments from its website from Leschi community members supporting the custodian. Protests from Leschi school staff, parents, and others were rudely dismissed. In an email to the school, KIRO News Director Todd Mokhtari said the station "stands by its stories," without further explication A letter was sent from KIRO's law firm asking for a recitation of laws which KIRO had broken.
Footage of the KIRO 7 reports was shown at the hearing, and can be viewed here. Representatives of the custodian's union, the Operating Engineers, the school, and the parent community made presentations and answered questions. They drew a picture of the custodian as a beloved and hard working member of the Leschi community, who volunteered beyond working hours to help after-school programs. (The full hearing was covered by TVW and will be broadcast later this week).
Invited to respond to the complaint, KIRO 7 chose not to do so. No one from the station appeared at the hearing, although a table and microphone were set aside for KIRO 7 and equal time alloted to rebut the complainants' statements. (Crosscut has asked KIRO-TV for comments on the controversy, with no reply received as yet.)
Hearings Board members voted unanimously (with some abstentions) that KIRO 7 was obligated, under generally accepted media-ethics standards, to retract the stories; remove them from its website; air a followup story setting the record straight; and apologize to those whose reputations were damaged, including in particular the custodian and Leschi Elementary School. Details of the votes are in this report from the WNC.
The Saturday formal hearing was only the sixth in the News Council's 14-year history to have reached that stage. Many other complaints have been lodged against news organizations during that time but, after review by WNC board members, most never get to formal hearing stage or are resolved in discussions between the complainants and news organizations. Another of the formal hearings, held in 2003, involved another complaint against KIRO 7 and reporter Halsne in which the complainants were upheld. Other complaints against KIRO, including one from Secretary of State Sam Reed, did not lead to the hearing stage.
Personal conclusion: All members of Saturday's panel, including myself, were thoroughly dismayed by the conduct displayed in the Leschi matter by KIRO 7 and, in particular, Halsne. Though new media have made inroads, KING, KOMO, and KIRO primetime TV news coverage remains important to area viewers' understanding of events in their communities. If I were KIRO's general manager, or an executive of CoxMedia Group, the parent company in Atlanta, I'd have the KIRO news director in front of my desk and would probably have long since reassigned Halsne to more appropriate duties — let us say, as a custodian.