An Opportunity Lost at the Seattle P-I?

by Gary Gilson, Minnesota News Council

A sad tableau is playing itself out in Seattle, home base of the Washington News Council.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a major newspaper in the state, has published a multi-year series about alleged lapses of internal discipline in the local county sheriff’s office. The sheriff filed a complaint with the News Council; because the parties have not resolved the complaint, it may be scheduled for a News Council public hearing.

The newspaper has announced it will not participate and has accused the News Council of bias, saying that four of its voting members have contributed money to the sheriff’s election campaign, and that the Council’s executive director is married to a woman who works for the previous sheriff, now a Congressman.

Beyond deciding it will not participate, the newspaper has filed legal papers seeking copies of all correspondence on this matter between the News Council and the sheriff’s office.

Unlike the situation in Minnesota, where almost all news outlets participate willingly in the News Council’s public hearings and forums on standards of journalistic fairness, in Washington the major media have generally chosen not to participate in the proceedings of the Washington News Council.

The Post-Intelligencer says it will deal with the complaint by publishing the newspaper’s response on its Internet web site.

Two Seattle reporters have called me in the past few days to ask what the Minnesota News Council’s policies are regarding political preferences of the Council’s voting members and what we do about conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

This is what I told them: When we consider applications for membership on the News Council’s hearing panel, we never ask applicants what their politics are. All we want to know is what they believe the role of the news media should be in a democracy and if they believe that the exercise of freedom of accuracy and fairness carries with it the responsibility to meet high standards for accuracy and fairness.

The Washington News Council and its executive director share the philosophy by which we in Minnesota operate: that we are passionately detached from the outcome of complaint hearings, but passionately attached to the fairness of the process.

Any member of the hearing panel with a conflict of interests is asked to attend the hearing and, before it starts, publicly announce his or her recusal. In the case of Northwest Airlines’ complaint against WCCO-TV, in 1996, the television station objected to the participation of a News Council member who was public relations director for the Minneapolis Police Department. The station said its relationship with her was strained, and it wanted her excluded. She promptly recused herself.

At a hearing on a complaint by the St. Paul Port Authority against City Pages, a hearing-panel member recused herself at the start, saying she was a close friend of a Port Authority executive.

A television news manager called me one day to ask why one of our panel members was conducting an independent investigation of a complaint, going beyond information the News Council staff was providing all members. The manager was right to ask: we have a policy forbidding such individual digging, and we told the member that he had to choose between being an investigator and serving on the News Council. He chose to drop his investigation.

I believe that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is wasting an opportunity to offer the public the same transparency it demands of all other institutions in its community, including the sheriff’s office.

I also believe that the Washington News Council should make all its questioned correspondence records available to the newspaper and the public, thereby demonstrating its transparency and neutrality on this complaint and shifting accountability back to the newspaper.

If it becomes clear that the News Council is impartial, then the newspaper should have no objection to taking part in a hearing. If it persists in refusing, then people will be justified in asking what the newspaper is afraid of.

After all, news council determinations carry no sanctions; they serve well, however, in encouraging conversations that lead to both better journalism and greater public understanding of the role of the press in our society.

article originally published at http://newscouncil.news-council.org/index.php?m=20060817.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey