KIRO7 Eyewitness News and television news reporter Chris Halsne were given a dose of harsh criticism Saturday by the Washington News Council in a three-hour hearing in which the independent media watchdog group determined the station aired inaccurate and damaging stories about a Seattle elementary school custodian’s treatment of young students.

[The entire hearing was recorded by TVW and can be viewed here (embedded to right) or on the TVW website.]

The genesis of News Council’s formal complaint proceeding was a batch of 15 separate complaints lodged against KIRO-TV by members of the Leschi Elementary School community and the union representing Chester Harris, a custodian at the school, in response to a trio of news reports created by Halsne and aired May 10-11 on KIRO-TV.

At the core of the stories were allegations Harris had “manhandled” students, accusations given credibility by other details in Halsne’s investigative reporting and included undercover video of activity on school grounds Halsne characterized as evidence of Harris’ wrongdoing.

(Our objective review of the video is that it actually shows Harris not being rough with students, but in fact appearing to gently shepherd an out of control child away from an altercation with others, as the mother alleged victim in the video told Halsne when she was interviewed for his May 11 follow-up report.)

Complainants contended Halsne and KIRO-TV disregarded and failed to disclose key facts while constructing a story that prejudiced viewers to indict Harris on the allegations.

Halsne’s reports featured interviews with two primary sources—relatives of students who accused Harris of being overly physical. Halsne did not mention in his stories that one of his sources was herself under a restraining order against stepping onto school property. He also chose not to disclose that both sources were part of an extended family, one that had been a persistent source of trouble for school staff according to Stout.

“This family has filed complaints against at least 12 staff members over the time that they’ve been there,” Stout informed the Council.

Halsne also introduced information about Harris’ arrest record and one conviction on theft charges and repeated accusations from the children that Harris had told them to meet him in his “basement” office. The phrase “putting hands [on students]” is uttered more than once in the Halsne’s voiceover.

Though the News Council’s preferred path to resolving complaints is to broker a conversation between complainants and the media, neither KIRO-TV nor Halsne responded to any of the News Council’s communication on the matter, prompting Saturday’s hearing at Town Hall in Seattle.

In opening remarks by complainant Teresa Stout—Leschi School administrative secretary—the News Council was told that all the school community was asking for from KIRO-TV was an apology. The empty chair at the table reserved for the broadcaster’s representatives seemed to silently answer her request.

The News Council endorsed the opinions of the complainants in the matter, finding on all but one of 12 questions that Halsne and KIRO-TV had caused harm with their negligent reporting on Harris and the station should feel obligated to make a public correction and apologize to those negatively affected.

We asked Halsne by email to comment on the News Council’s findings, but did not receive a response to our request.

KIRO-TV interim news director Jake Milstein was quoted in another local report covering Saturday’s hearing as saying only that “KIRO-TV stands by its stories.”

The News Council held a less sympathetic opinion on the question of whether the reputation of Harris’ union—International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 609—had been damaged by KIRO-TV’s reporting. On that question, only three of the 8 voting members concurred that the union’s image had been harmed.

The Council spent a great deal of time interviewing McBee, Harris’ union rep, on questions of how much information about KIRO-TV’s story development was being shared with officials from Seattle Public Schools. He was candid in saying that he had not shared information with the district, including arrangements Halsne made to interview Harris just off school grounds.

News Council board member Eddie Reed stepped up first to suggest more information sharing between the union and the school administration would have been appropriate.

A second board member Steve Boyer went further, admonishing McBee, saying, “We live in a brand new world of journalism that is not for the faint of heart” and recommending that the union needed to “up their game.” McBee graciously accepted the advice.

Though the News Council’s determination has no legal enforceability and KIRO cannot be compelled to follow its prescriptions, now would be an opportune time for a station with sagging ratings to improve its standing in the community. After all, to be a respected member of a community, one first has to submit to the immutable law of social reciprocity—The Golden Rule. Now is the moment for incoming station manager Jay O’Connor to recommit to strong standards of journalistic integrity.

The discussion about internal ethics might begin with how the station vets and oversees its reporters. The red marks handed down by the News Council Saturday are not the first on Halsne’s journalistic record.

In 1998, while a reporter with KWTV News9 in Oklahoma City, Okla., Halsne put together a series of reports on a series of race and show horse accidents and focused on accusations made against veterinarian Dr. H.L. Mitchell. Halsne’s reports contained allegation Mitchell had been implicated in the doping of horses, allegations that were later shown to be less than accurate. Mitchell sued KWTV’s parent company (Mitchell v. Griffin Television) for the defamation and false light invasion of privacy and won (charges tantamount to libel), a court decision that was upheld on further appeal.

In a court opinion, Judge Carol Olsen—the presiding judge in the appeals case—hones in on Halsne’s characterization of the death of Doo Dominate, a New Mexico racehorse that fell on the track and had to be euthanized. Halsne reported Doo Dominate had been under the care of Mitchell prior to the race and a post-mortem exam of the horse found that it had been doped to run while suffering a broken knee. Olsen took a dim view of  his report, writing:

“…Halsne falsely reported the [New Mexico State Racing Commission] found Doo Dominate raced raced doped-up and Mitchell was linked to the doping. There is evidence Halsne knew the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. A reasonable jury could find the statement injured Mitchell’s professional reputation.”

Ironic that the implication in KIRO-TV’s story that Harris’ history was a sufficient indication of probable guilt—a clear value statement that second chances are inappropriate—came from Halsne, a reporter who himself was given a second chance to extend his media career.