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Ethics Committee: News council should abandon 'virtual hearing'


For Immediate Release:

Dave Aeikens, SPJ President, (320) 255-8744,

Andy Schotz, SPJ Ethics Committee Chair, (240) 420-2993,

Public polling shouldn’t be used to render ethics judgments about journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee said in response to a news council’s handling of a recent complaint in Washington state.

The Washington News Council conducted a “virtual hearing” on a state official’s complaint about a TV station’s reporting on voting irregularities. Washington’s secretary of state said voting-related stories by KIRO, a CBS affiliate in Seattle, were flawed and inaccurate. KIRO has chosen not to give its side to the council.

John Hamer, the news council’s executive director, said KIRO wouldn’t participate in a hearing or publicly address the complaint about its stories. Frustrated, the secretary of state withdrew his complaint.

Todd Mokhtari, KIRO’s news director, said in an interview that the station stands by its voting-related stories. He declined to talk about the news council’s hearing process.

The council hears complaints about news coverage and, ideally, mediates them or educates the public about the journalistic process.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee sees merit in a news council as a mediator or an educator. A hearing can be worthwhile if all parties voluntarily participate and work toward a common understanding.

The committee strongly objects to having a public online vote, or virtual hearing, on journalism ethics.

On Monday, the council posted online voting results and comments, which were lopsided against KIRO. However, Hamer says the council doesn’t have the time or staff to verify the identities of the voters. See the poll results here.

“The news council is wrong to emulate the ‘American Idol’ model of voting for a ‘winner,’” said Andy Schotz, chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee. “Gimmickry is a major step backward if the council wants to appear professional and credible.”

Since 1998, when the Washington News Council started, it has conducted four hearings, Hamer said. Each time, the news organization that was challenged wouldn't participate.

Hamer said the virtual hearing is an experiment in public engagement and keeping the media accountable.

The experiment should be abandoned, the Ethics Committee Believes. Discussions of journalism ethics are often complex and nuanced. Frequently, there's no single “right” decision.

News councils can bring news organizations and the public together to understand each others’ positions. But this online poll is unscientific, unreliable, misleading and based on incomplete information.

The Ethics Committee encourages KIRO and all news organizations to be accountable. They should listen to and answer challenges to their coverage. If they make mistakes, they should correct them.

News organizations should embrace efforts to fairly resolve questions of fairness and accuracy. The news council's virtual hearing undercuts that process.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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