CPB Office of the Ombudsman

Vitae vs. KUOW, the Verdict

Joel Kaplan

April 4, 2012

The Washington News Council met on March 31 to handle the complaint brought by the Vitae Caring Foundation against public radio station KUOW-FM for a story it deemed to be unfair (see my previous report, Vitae Caring Foundation vs. KUOW) because of its failure to contact representatives of the foundation or to promptly correct an error in the story on air.

The 11-member council that heard the complaint voted unanimously that KUOW had a journalistic responsibility to contact representatives of the Vitae Foundation before it ran its story. The council also voted 10-0 with one abstention that KUOW's original story contained errors that were substantial enough that they should have been corrected on-air.

In the other four questions that were before the council, it voted 8-1 with 2 abstentions that the KUOW story did not accurately characterize the abortion information available on the youroptions.com website; voted 5-3 with 3 abstentions that KUOW had a responsibility to give equal airtime to both Vitae and Planned Parenthood in its story; voted 6-4 with 1 abstention that the follow-up interview conducted by news director Guy Nelson with Vitae executive Debbie Stokes did not significantly acknowledge or clarify the errors in the original story; and voted 10-1 that KUOW did not have a responsibility to provide the Vitae Foundation additional on-air coverage after the original story aired.

Here is a summary of the proceedings.

The hearing was presided over by former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. The Washington News Council is the last news council remaining in the United States and is designed to hear complaints from citizens and organizations that feel they have been unfairly treated by the news media. One of the strengths of the news council is that its members include representatives from both the media and the general public.

To a great extent, the role of the news council is similar to the one played by the ombudsman. Had I been asked to opine on this case and given access to the same amount of information the council received, I would have come to similar conclusions.

Clearly, KUOW should have attempted to contact the Vitae Foundation before running the story, an act that its reporter readily acknowledges. And once it was pointed out that abortion services is listed on its website, that part of the story should have been corrected.

I also strongly believe that the mistakes made in the story should have been promptly corrected on-air. The mistakes in this story were significant enough that the listening public had a right to know the facts. Correcting the story online is a necessary step, but is not sufficient.

So while KUOW should have corrected its story on air, I also strongly believe that the radio station was under no obligation to provide the Vitae Foundation with additional on-air coverage to make up for its mistakes.

A credible and responsible news organization promptly corrects its mistakes. 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.

KUOW addendum

April 6, 2012

Kathy Gill, who attended the Washington News Council hearing on the complaint lodged against KUOW by the Vitae Caring Foundation, took issue with my characterization of the council's vote on question 1. The first question asked, "Did KUOW have a journalistic responsibility to contact Vitae Foundation, YourOptions, and/or CareNet for comment before airing the April 13, 2011 news story?" The council voted unanimously that KUOW did.

But Ms. Gill said KUOW did comply with question 1 because the station attempted to contact a CareNet organization, which did not respond to inquiries. "As you know, if organizations waited until they got a response before running a story, those who are uncooperative would be able to pocket veto ANY story that they did not want to see the light of day," Ms. Gill wrote.

Ms. Gill also took issue with the notion that abortion was ever listed as an option of the YourOptions.com website, at least on the home page.

"Finally, if it is unfair or incorrect to characterize an organization that grew out of a church movement, has been endorsed by the Archbishop of Kansas and receives extensive funding from churches as a religious group, then I don't understand the phrase."

I passed on Ms. Gill's complaint to John Hamer, the executive director of the Washington News Council. Ms. Gill has also complained to Mr. Hamer, saying that the panel that heard the case was "overwhelmingly male and old. If it was supposed to reflect community values, it fell very short. It had very few people with news media experience, which means to me that it could only act as a reflection of the community. It didn't" She also complained that the questions the panel were supposed to answer were prejudicial.

"This was a tempest in a teapot stirred with rigor by Vitae. I'm quite certain it generated a wave of individual contributions, as it was designed to do," Ms. Gill wrote Mr. Hamer.

According to Mr. Hamer, Ms. Gill came late to the hearing so did not hear the biographies of the board members, a majority of whom have extensive news media experience. He said that there are several women members of the board, including its chair, but they were unable to be at Saturday's hearing.

As for the specific complaints Ms. Gill registered in her email to the ombudsman, Mr. Hamer passed those on to Debbie Stokes, the executive vice president of the Vitae Foundation.

Ms. Stokes said that since the first third of the report made false assertions about Vitae and its advertising, "here is where KUOW should have contacted Vitae but failed." Ms. Stokes added that Ms. Gill was incorrect about her characterization of the website and said that the YourOptions website, while not promoting abortion, did list abortion as an option.

Finally, Ms. Stokes questioned the relevance of Ms. Gill's comments regarding Vitae's support from churches. "These comments have no relevance to the journalistic issue that was before the Washington News Council," Ms. Stokes said.

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