Limited support for complaint against KUOW

Hearing by ethics watchdog could sew up feud in Seattle

Members of a Seattle-based media-watchdog group weighed in March 31 [2012] on a yearlong dispute between an antiabortion group and KUOW, the city’s all-news pubradio outlet, bringing the disagreement to an end for the time being.

A majority of panelists convened by the Washington News Council voted in agreement that KUOW had made errors in a story involving the Vitae Foundation, and that the mistakes merited on-air corrections or clarifications. KUOW had already corrected and clarified the story, though only on its website.

But most members of the WNC panel agreed that KUOW had no responsibility to give the Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the story aired. Vitae had asked KUOW for on-air reporting as reparation for the initial story’s flaws, and initially the news council had backed that request.

The dispute between KUOW and Vitae, a nonprofit based in Jefferson City, Mo., began in April 2011 when the station aired a story about an advertising campaign sponsored by Vitae. The group’s billboards directed women with unplanned pregnancies to a website, YourOptions.com.

The website lists abortion as an option for handling an unexpected pregnancy, but the KUOW report didn’t explicitly say that. Vitae objected that KUOW’s report had mischaracterized its website. KUOW responded to the complaint by running a clarification on its website but not on the air.

Vitae also argued that the story should have included an interview with one of their representatives, but KUOW News Director Guy Nelson disagreed, arguing that the story was not solely about Vitae.

Unsatisfied with KUOW’s actions and responses, Vitae filed a complaint with the WNC, a nonprofit that promotes fairness and accountability among news outlets in Washington state. The WNC tried to mediate a compromise between Vitae and KUOW. Along with Vitae, it urged KUOW to do a follow-up story about the foundation.

KUOW’s Nelson says he considered assigning such a story but has so far decided against it. The issue that prompted the original report — whether antiabortion pregnancy centers should be required to be more clear about the services they offer — is no longer under consideration in the legislature, Nelson says, so no further coverage has been warranted.

Although the WNC had advised KUOW to air a follow-up story, its own hearings board voted 10-1 at the March 31 meeting that KUOW had no responsibility to provide any additional on-air coverage of Vitae after the story aired.

CPB Ombudsman Joel Kaplan agreed in an online column.  “A credible and responsible news organization promptly corrects its mistakes,” he wrote. “It does not trade its most valuable commodity — its airtime — as a way to apologize by promoting a story on an organization that does not pass the newsworthy test.”

The WNC also voted unanimously on the question of whether KUOW had a “journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions and/or CareNet for comment” before airing its story. That question was considered, even though KUOW’s reporter had called CareNet while reporting on the initial story. The reporter said she did not receive a response.

The WNC’s Hearings Board was made up mostly of academics and former journalists. The hearing was only its fifth since the council’s founding in 1998. It has fielded more than two dozen complaints, however, and mediated several compromises, according to President John Hamer.

Copyright 2012 American University