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A complaint over the Seattle Times’ “Price of Protection” series will be the focus of a Washington News Council hearing this weekend.

The Washington News Council will hold a hearing Saturday morning on a complaint against the Seattle Times by one of the subjects of its 2012 “Price of Protection” investigative series.

It will be the seventh hearing in the 15-year history of the group, which describes itself as the state’s only operating media oversight organization. But this hearing will come with a new twist: a live webcast.

The webcast by TVW is part of the News Council’s effort to better engage members of the public, who will be able to vote online on the key questions raised by complaint, said John Hamer, the Washington News Council’s president. The online vote will be tabulated and presented alongside tallies from News Council Hearings Board members and members of the in-person audience at Seattle’s Town Hall.

“Shouldn’t the audience of the media be the ones who give feedback on how well they do?” Hamer said this morning.

David Boardman, the executive editor of the Seattle Times, said the newspaper won’t be participating in the hearing.

“A significant element of our objection is that we face a vote not only by the Hearings Board but by an attending audience formed with no controls and almost certainly dominated by supporters of the complainant, and by a viewing and online audience whose makeup we know nothing about,” wrote Boardman in an email to GeekWire. “The Society of Professional Journalists National Ethics Committee in 2009 called this process ‘gimmickry,’ stating, ‘The News Council is wrong to emulate the ‘American Idol’ model of voting.’ ”

Boardman said the Times will be sending a letter to the News Council this afternoon explaining why it’s not taking part.

Hamer said the organization’s hearings — led by retired state appeals court judge Karen Seinfeld — are thorough, thoughtful and carefully balanced. He noted that the group, which includes citizens and media veterans, has no legal authority. Hearings are a last resort for the group, which also works behind-the-scenes to help complainants get a response from media, he said.

The latest case involves a series published by the Seattle Times in early 2012 about the state’s sex-offender program. Dr. Richard Wollert, a psychologist whose work was scrutinized in the piece, says in his complaint to the News Council that the series was “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, biased, inflammatory and unfair.” The Times published a correction in March 2013, but Wollert contends that his complaints haven’t been adequately addressed.

TVW has broadcast past Washington News Council hearings and posted video online afterward. The News Council has also held online votes before. However, the live webcast is a first, adding a new element of public involvement.

Hamer said the News Council will check the online votes by reviewing the names and email addresses submitted via the online ballot. The ballot asks online respondents to either attend the hearing or view the webcast or archived video, and review the complaint and documents (PDF) before voting.

“We’re going to do our best to validate those votes,” Hamer said, explaining that the group will disqualify votes from people who use email addresses or names that are clearly not legitimate. However, he acknowledged that the group can’t guarantee that the people voting online will have watched the full hearing and reviewed the documentation.

He said the group invites feedback and suggestions on its process, noting that the News Council itself is also learning how to adjust to the new world of online media.

Hamer, a former Seattle Times associate editorial page editor, said he will be recusing himself from voting in the case based on his history with The Times and other connections. He said he responded to Boardman’s objections by encouraging the Times to participate in the hearing. He will be reserving a table for the newspaper in case it changes its mind at the last minute.

“I said, ‘Well, David, you’re free to pack the house, too.” he said. “Bring your whole staff.”

More background: Live webcast at 9 a.m. Pacific Saturday morning, Seattle Times series, Washington News Council’s page for the case, and documentation of Wollert’s complaint.

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