Independent panel: Seattle Times unfair to psychologist

A panel of media experts and public citizens ruled the Times unfairly portrayed a forensic psychologist in a series last winter.
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Dr. Richard Wollert presents his case to a Washington News Council hearing board on June 1, 2013, at Seattle's Town Hall.

A panel of media experts and public citizens ruled the Times unfairly portrayed a forensic psychologist in a series last winter.

Sources quoted in a Seattle Times series called him an “outlier,” a pusher of self-invented theories and methods that “are not sound science.” Another said his written reports were “mumbo-jumbo.” Overall, forensic psychologist Dr. Richard Wollert, frequently hired as an expert witness for the defense in determining whether a sexual predator who has served his prison sentence must serve additional time in the state’s civil commitment facility, was presented as making a mint at the public trough through excessively high fees. This was in a Seattle Times series last winter that investigated the exorbitant costs of Washington's sexual predator civil commitment program.

In “The Price of Protection,” the Times' multimedia series, investigative reporter Christine Willmsen herself described Wollert as working in "unorthodox" ways and highlighted his having made $1.2 million in a two-year period of providing expert defense in this and other states. She included no favorable comments about Wollert.

In late March of this year, Wollert filed a formal complaint against the Times with the Washington News Council (WNC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to holding Washington state newspapers and other media outlets accountable by measuring their work against high journalistic standards of ethics and fairness.

On Saturday, his case was aired in a public WNC hearing at Town Hall, before a board of twelve WNC-appointed media members and public members, who had read his exhaustively detailed complaint beforehand. Among other things the psychologist argued that Willmsen should have sought comments from people who were not sexual offender prosecutors, not forensic psychologists for the prosecution and not competitors with him in forensic psychology research.

Two written responses from the Times were read: one from executive editor and senior vice president David Boardman and one from investigative editor James Neff. Taken together, the letters argued that all facts in the series were public information and statements of public opinions, both of which are protected by the First Amendment. All facts, they continued, were accurate except one, for which the Times had already made a public correction. The letters noted the many hours the Times had spent talking with Wollert about his concerns and poring over documentation.

At the end of the hearing, the board voted on twelve questions about the ethics of the Times' coverage.

Six of the ten voting members (WNC President John Hamer and the chair recused themselves) voted that the Times series did not "portray Dr. Wollert, including his academic background, research history, scientific methodologies and past testimony, in an accurate, fair, complete and balanced way." Four voted that the Times had lived up to these standards. 

The votes on six of the remaining questions were in favor of Wollert, three yielded split votes and the votes in two favored The Times. Averaging the votes on all twelve questions, about 58 percent of the panel supported Wollert’s contentions, even though several  members agreed that he “had cut himself off at the knees” (in the words of one panelist) when he thrice refused Willmsen's invitations to be interviewed.

The goal of such hearings, said Hamer, is to educate the public about the media. This was WNC’s seventh public hearing since the organization’s founding 15 years ago. Most time Saturday was spent clarifying very complicated facts about Wollert’s background and history, but there was also discussion about how news reports differ from investigations and advocacy journalism, and the role an initial hypothesis might play in an investigative reporter’s process.

Panelists also may have cleared up stray public misunderstandings about the media when they schooled Wollert about journalistic practice. He should not have declined the reporter's requests for an interview, they said, even if her manner did not communicate the “deference and politeness” Wollert wished. “Investigative reporters are not the most congenial,” noted one.

Another hearing board member commented on an extensive document Wollert had submitted to the Times, titled "Elements of an Adequate Correction." In the document Wollert requested that the newspaper retract parts of Willmsen’s story, even where statements were based on public sources. He also wanted the paper to print extended descriptions of his worthy professional work and background, and statements of remorse on the part of the paper. The panelist informed him that no newspaper operates or would operate in this way.

The Times had chosen not to attend the hearing. The letter from Boardman said the event had “all the markings of a public trial” and called it a “quasi-judicial spectacle." In such a context he objected to facing a vote by an audience that could be packed with interested parties. He also rejected the idea of appearing before "an online audience whose makeup we know nothing about," and compared the process to the "'American Idol' model of voting."

Finally, he noted that all the votable questions came straight from objections Wollert made in his complaint. Boardman was not present to witness that after Wollert heard the panel's queries and discussion, he was permitted to delete any questions he didn’t want voted on. Having heard the panel criticize his refusals to be interviewed by the reporter, Wollert deleted the question about the interviews.

Hamer cast the event as educational, not judicial. But it may be worth noting that the hearing board chair, a retired judge, more than once compared the other members to a jury.

A footnote: The Times series had an impact. In 2011 DSHS  had placed a limit of $10,000 on payments to forensic experts for evaluations of offenders and capped their hourly rate at $200. The more direct potential impact of the Times series was that, as of July 2012, because of legislative action, DSHS no longer pays either defense or prosecution litigation costs. Prosecution costs are paid by prosecutors and the Attorney General’s Office, and defense costs are paid through the Office of Public Defense.


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