SEATTLE — The independent Washington News Council delivered a harsh referendum to Seattle National Public Radio affiliate KUOW-FM after a formal hearing held Saturday on the main campus of the University of Washington, a proceeding designed to put to rest a yearlong complaint procedure initiated by The Vitae Foundation after the airing of a news piece last April.

The majority of the WNC’s 11-person Complaint Board sided against KUOW on five questions out of six voted on by the panel at the conclusion of Saturday’s three-hour hearing. (See inset for detail on the questions and the way the board voted).

The Complaint Board’s queries delved into the ethical choices the station made during the creation of a story about pregnancy help centers that aired April 13, 2011, as well as the steps KUOW took (or did not take) to remedy inaccurate information in its reporting after being made aware of the errors.

Only on the question of whether KUOW should be obligated to provide “additional on-air coverage” to Vitae because of the reporting errors did the Hearing Board find in the public radio broadcaster’s favor, with 10 of 11 members voting that no such responsibility exists.

The WNC is an independent organization and does not mete out punishment and its determinations are not legally binding. Instead of delivering enforceable decisions, the group provides a neutral ground to conflicting parties needing conflict mediation, one that is supervised by a board comprised of members with backgrounds in media, communications and law. By doing so, the WNC assumes a role in the media community to assist in the establishment of ethical boundaries and best practices that promote journalistic legitimacy.

Although Saturday’s determination by the WNC Complaint Board was explicitly directed at the newsroom of KUOW, the Board’s discussion probed deeper ethical questions for journalists in the current period of media mutation. Its inquiries peeled back the skin that hangs across a frail journalistic body to examine on the changing structure of the surviving modern media beneath.

The conversation made possible by the WNC hearing should be viewed as an open door to explore how ethics must be adapted to the realities of today’s journalistic process in order to ensure that the news media can be credible as the media searches for a sustainable way of providing vital news and information.

The Matter of a Small Substantive Error on a Mundane Controversial Subject

The central issues the WNC Complaint Board considered stemmed from a news story prepared by KUOW intern Meghan Walker that aired April 13, 2011 during the state Legislature’s consideration of a measure to restrict advertising by limited-service pregnancy centers, facilities that often encourage alternatives to abortion.

The introduction to Walker’s piece is still on the KUOW website, under the headline “Controversy Surrounding Limited Service Pregnancy Centers”:

“Controversial billboards have been popping up around Seattle lately. They’re for a website, It aims to give pregnant women alternatives to abortion. But some people say the billboards are misleading. They want a law that would force such ads to be more transparent. KUOW’s Meghan Walker has the story”.

The Vitae Foundation—a non-profit media resource group for pro-life organizations—is mentioned on the website, but instead of giving its own account of its own website, Walker gave the microphone to Planned Parenthood of Seattle’s public affairs director Kristen Glunbderg-Prosser.

In the on-air report, Glundberg-Prosser critiqued of, making several substantive misrepresentations in the process, choices Walker made in cutting the piece together that neglected to consider Planned Parenthood’s role as a competitor to Vitae in the area of pregnancy counseling.

Vitae’s representative at the hearing, Pia de Solleni, reinforced the group’s position that by not giving Vitae an opportunity to respond in a story that named them as a subject, in De Solleni’s words “KUOW failed to follow its own code of ethics in this case.”

KUOW program director Guy Nelson also appeared at the hearing to provide the station’s account, telling board members that the reporter did make multiple unsuccessful attempts to contact CareNet—one of the call centers handling questions originating from the website—blaming the lack of contact with Vitae on KUOW’s confusion about what group controlled

At other points in the hearing, Nelson indicated his belief that the subject of the story was the pending legislation in Olympia to restrict advertising, not Vitae’s billboards per se, though an objective reading of the transcript of the April 13 news story does not seem to support his editorial interpretation.

Vitae’s other main contention has been that when KUOW became aware of errors in its story, it did not promptly move to make a public correction.

Nelson spoke to this in his opening remarks, stating: “We listened to the Vitae Foundation’s claims. We acknowledged that the story contained factual errors. We corrected those as soon as we became aware of them, which was, in some cases, several weeks after the story aired.”

Records pertaining to the WNC complaint indicated that Nelson and Stokes were in email contact within one week of the April 13 story’s airing.

Nelson also told the WNC board that in the time between the airing of the original story and the KUOW becoming aware of its errors, the timeliness of the subject had evaporated. Nelson asserted his editorial opinion that the lack of a proper “news peg” robbed him of opportunities to make an on-air correction while upholding the station’s guidelines for broadcast newsworthiness.

Therefore, though a number of clarifications were posted to the original story and a written transcript of an interview with Debbie Stokes, executive vice president of the Vitae Foundation, was posted to the KUOW website on September 30, 2011, the issue of whether an on-air correction was appropriate was a question for the Complaint Board.

The vote of the Complaint Board was nearly unanimous on the question of whether the errors in KUOW’s reporting were worthy of an on-air correction, despite Nelson’s unwavering statements that the remedies published on the station website were equal to a broadcast notification of inaccurate reporting.

How Many Web Corrections Does it Take to Equal One Broadcast Error?

Throughout the hearing, a debate on the comparative value of different media—in particular when counting corrections in a media organization’s ethical accounting to the public—ran as a subtext just beneath the more obvious conflict between KUOW and Vitae.

In one exchange, WNC Board Member and public relations executive Steve Boyer asked Nelson to describe the point at which a correction made on the KUOW website is equivalent to the original error in the news piece. Nelson replied, “Immediately.”

Another challenge to Nelson’s equation—web post is equal to radio broadcast—surfaced in a thought-provoking interchange between Nelson and board member Martin Neeb:

Martin Neeb: “If you were selling soap, would you choose the air or website?”

Guy Nelson: “I would choose the website, your potential audience is billions of people.”

Nelson’s reply to Neeb was straight-faced, though at a different time in the hearing the KUOW programming chief gave a less optimistic, but more quantitative estimate of the power of KUOW’s broadcast and web outlets, informing WNC members:

“There could be hundreds of people who view our web content every day, and over the course of a few weeks that would be then thousands and thousands of people, but it depends at what time of day you’re talking about for our on-air listenership. Sometimes that may be a few hundred people, sometimes it may be in the thousands.”

De Solleni took her turn to smartly answer the question, saying, “I would choose the means to most directly reach the target audience.”

The dialogue provokes a number of serious questions. Who is the target audience for a correction? Should the audience for a correction be mostly similar to the audience for the offending error? If so, does it follow that the best means to reach the audience for a correction is through the same medium as carried the error?

Yet another notable board member—Bill Gates, Sr.—queried Nelson on whether there had been any deliberation about using the web to remedy the errors versus broadcasting a correction on the airwaves.

Bill Gates, Sr.: “Did you have a discussion about whether you’re going to go on the air or go on the Internet?”

Nelson: “Absolutely.”

Gates: “You seriously thought it was better to go on Internet than to go on air?”

Nelson affirmed his answer, giving advertisers everywhere a reason to begin hounding their media buyers for discount rates on radio time.

Amid Widespread Media Fragmentation, The Time for Ethical Retooling is Now

Nelson’s suggestion to Gates that publishing the interview with Vitae veep Stokes was equal to an on-air correction provided a moment of levity (though perhaps at Nelson’s expense), one that may also have exposed a demon that may lurk on the shoulder of each and every news producer.

The incentive for those who communicate through powerful primary media (television, radio, print daily newspapers) to use secondary media (websites, Facebook pages) to slough off less valuable news and information is easy for us to comprehend.

With most forms of media—television, radio, print—there is some constraining factor on just how much news can be delivered, either in terms of the cost of production (ink and paper, production gear and electricity) or in the finite nature of space and time (every page has limited space, every day contains only 1,440 minutes).

The limitations placed on websites by data storage notwithstanding, websites escape most of the restrictions on other media and the temptation for larger media to use the web as a sort of backpage bramble, a dumping ground for errata and corrections—the journalistic equivalent of asking one’s priest for forgiveness while avoiding contrition with those who have been harmed by your sins—could be an easy ethical slide to talk oneself into.

But there are obvious differences in how the public uses different media such as websites and radio, even when the specific website and radio station are operated by a common organization such as KUOW. Distinctions in how various media are used by the public have implications on how media organizations should construct their ethics guidelines, especially with respect to corrections.

The cause of establishing a solid commitment to journalistic ethics is as important as ever, particularly in this era of rapidly evolving media. Despite the growth of new media sources and the democratization of information, society still relies on large news institutions to learn more about the larger issues affecting public policy. In that role, credibility is king.

“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful,” said journalist and trailblazing broadcaster Edward Murrow.

Put another way, the news media and society form a system governed by the simple principle of “garbage in, garbage out.”

If maintaining a commitment to the basic role of journalism in a free society requires that news media learn to set their garbage on the curb for the entire world to see, every news organization should learn to bag it, display it humbly and move on.