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Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing at is a daily review of the best reporting and commentary on the presidency. Read it daily and you'll be extremely well informed.

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Micro Persuasion is Steve Rubel's weblog. It's about how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the business of persuasion. Rubel always has the latest study or article.

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Lost Remote is a very newsy weblog about television and its future, founded by Cory Bergman, executive producer at KING-TV in Seattle. Truly on top of things, with many short posts a day that take an inside look at the industry.

Editors Weblog is from the World Editors Fourm, an international group of newspaper editors. It's about trends and challenges facing editors worldwide. keeps track of developments from the British side of the Atlantic. Very strong on online journalism.

Digests & Round-ups:

Memeorandum: Single best way I know of to keep track of both the news and the political blogosphere. Top news stories and posts that people are blogging about, automatically updated.

Daily Briefing: A categorized digest of press news from the Project on Excellence in Journalism.

Press Notes is a round-up of today's top press stories from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Richard Prince does a link-rich thrice-weekly digest called "Journalisms" (plural), sponsored by the Maynard Institute, which believes in pluralism in the press.

Newsblog is a daily digest from Online Journalism Review.

E-Media Tidbits from the Poynter Institute is group blog by some of the sharper writers about online journalism and publishing. A good way to keep up

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May 11, 2005

Spokane Mayor Sex Scandal: Would You Give Paper an Award?

The Spokesman-Review's investigation revealed that Spokane Mayor Jim West was trolling for male teenage sex on the Internet. Ethically flawed or good journalism? In an IM Interview, guest blogger Leonard Witt of PJNet gets Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith's side of the story.

Key Quote from Interview:

I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively.

Leonard Witt: Hi Steve. Thanks for agreeing to do this interview for PressThink and my regular site, the PJNet. Let’s get right into what has journalists and people interested in journalism ethics all abuzz: Your use of a forensic computer expert to pose as a 17-year-old boy to find out if Mayor West was trolling online for sex with teenage men.

Here is what Tom Detzel, who oversees investigative projects at the Oregonian, was quoted as saying, “It’s a pity they had to undercut the credibility of an otherwise fair and relevant report by setting up a phony identity and luring West into a trap. This is not anything I could ever imagine condoning here. You can’t lie to get to the truth, then expect someone to respect or believe your version of the truth.”

So what’s your reaction?

Steve Smith: Well, I respect Tom and his work. But he never talked to us and really has no idea what he’s talking about. We did not set a trap. And our procedure actually added credibility to our work by confirming otherwise unconfirmable information. Absent our efforts, the entire piece of the project dealing with Internet activity might never have been publishable and we would not have uncovered aspects of the mayor’s life that might actually result in criminal prosecution.

I can walk through the decision-making process and rationale if you would like.

Witt: Sure, why not?

Smith: First, we went into the investigation trying to find individuals who might have been abuse victims 25 years ago. In the course of that investigation, our reporter was told by a source that he should talk to a young man, only 18, who had just told friends he had met Mayor West online and had a date with him leading to consensual sex.

That was a shocking tip and totally unexpected. This was last fall, late October, early November. Bill Morlin subsequently interviewed the young man who told us of meeting a man on with the screen name of Cobra82nd. They chatted periodically and eventually decided to meet. The young man was 18. They met, went to dinner (with the kid paying) and then drove out to a local country club where they had sex in the man’s Lexus.

The young man had no additional proof. He said during the tryst the man identified himself as West. But the young man had not recognized him when they met. He had no documentation as the online correspondence had long since gone into the ether.

We had the allegation, which included indications that offers of gifts and perks were involved. But nothing we could prove. Even when we much later found a second young man, we had no proof.

It was my decision that we would not publish anything until we knew without any doubt that the man on the Internet was Jim West. Remember our source was only 18, hadn’t recognized the mayor when they met and had no records. I wasn’t going to charge one of the state’s most powerful politicians without absolute proof. You can’t shoot with a circumstantial popgun in this case.

We had multiple choices. We could just go ask the mayor. Not very smart. A simple denial and then he drops off the website and we’re done. We could ask the young man to go back in…which he did once. But the communication was inconclusive. And he didn’t want any more contact with Cobra82nd. We could find another young man, a real person, but that seemed ethically suspect, maybe more so.

I heard one of the academic ethicists say we had enough because we had a real person and we could hang a story on that. But I think that’s the perspective of someone who doesn’t work in the real world. We needed proof.

The decision to hire the consultant was mine. He is a skilled Internet specialist and tracker. His assignment was to go into and ascertain the identity of Cobra82nd (and RightBiGuy later). We hoped he could do this without chatting, but by lurking in the background and tracking computer and IP information.

He insisted that he (not us) would go to the police first if he had information about criminal activity. We agreed. He did not know who we suspected was behind the names. We wanted to see what he found out.

We learned quickly that because of firewalls, the technical tracking was not going to work, at least initially. Remember, those of us on the small and closed team dealing with this didn’t yet understand how these sites operate. We learned that has good filters that are built to prevent third-party tracking. Our only remaining option was to go in as an individual and see what would happen. We wanted to know who the individual was and we wanted to know if he would approach underage children. Our guy went in as a 17-year-old with a birthday coming up. He dropped in on some chat rooms and waited.

From there, all activity was initiated by the mayor, as per our consultant’s instructions. He made contact. He initiated sex talk with the 17-year-old persona. He offered gifts for the kid’s birthday, he initiated sex, etc.

Throughout all of this we still didn’t have proof. If you read the transcripts, you’ll see the circumstantial case building. But we did not have conclusive proof. I wanted it nailed cold. The conversations happened in the way the mayor has done this before — we initiated no new or unusual behavior from him. And they built trust.

In early April, April 8 and 9 we finally got the proof. First the mayor agreed to a physical meeting and he showed up. We were there. That was what I needed. Secondly, he arranged the meeting through this medium, AOL Instant Messenger, outside firewalls. That gave us the IP address, not immediately useful but good to have in the event of litigation.

At that point, we terminated our work on This is an area of misunderstanding in the industry. And no one seems willing to just pick up the phone and ask. They suggest we knew this was the mayor and stayed online, presumably to pick up titillating stuff. Not the case. All we wanted to know was, is this the mayor and what is he doing out there and is it consistent with what we’ve been told.

As a result of this, the mayor admitted all aspects of the Internet portion of our package. That would not have happened if we had left one little crack in the door. That’s it,.

Witt: Okay. So let’s put the journalists and ethicists aside for a moment. Do you think a story like this, and the way you did it, builds or hurts the public’s trust in the media?

Smith: Based on what we’re hearing from readers, it has built trust in our readers and Spokane citizens. They know what we wrote is true. Feedback is running 10- maybe 15-1 in our favor and those who don’t like what we did rarely reference the computer expert.

I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively.

Let me add quickly. I think the knee jerk reaction of journalists is “we don’t lie.” I agree. But all of our ethics codes, SPJ for example, and even the Poynter’s ethics specialists, allow for exceptions when there is no other way to get the info and the story is important enough. The feds are going after our mayor on official corruption charges as a result of our work.

Witt: You probably saw this coming because you wrote in a letter to Romenesko that by using the forensic computer guy that, “We knew it would kill any chance our series would garner awards.” If your story matched at least some ethical codes, why would doing the story the way you did, prohibit you from winning any awards?

Smith: Well, there is a history of this. And I knew we would be criticized, and vigorously, by the very people who hand out those awards.

Look at the quick knee-jerk reaction. I find it hard to believe that people will back off that, even if they take the time to listen to our explanations. But let me emphasize, it doesn’t matter. People who know me, know it’s always about the journalism and our responsibility to our community and to its citizens. The prizes, if they come, belong to two of the finest investigative reporters I’ve ever known. I’m just the suit. They are the folks who have done the heavy lifting along with our city editor.

Witt: Tell me a little about the kind of resources that went into building this story in terms of the cost in time, personnel and money?

Smith: Well, the longest part of the investigation was conducted by reporter Bill Morlin. It took him just shy of two years to move from his 2003 series on abuse in the Sheriff’s department to this story. He worked on it steadily, sometimes doing other things. Classic shoe leather stuff. Records, phone calls, blind quests for unnamed victims living on the street. Amazing work to produce our two named, on the record sources of abuse allegations.

Costs started building with the Internet investigation. The consultant didn’t come cheap. The scope of the story started growing earlier this year and that’s when we brought in Karen Dorn Steele. She handled the legislative angles and critical backgrounding while chased down more ghosts.

We’ve spent a fortune on our lawyer(s). And there is the travel, time and newshole. It’s gonna be a big blow to my newsroom budget. My publisher has yet to raise that issue. The advantage of a family ownership.

Witt: Who is your publisher any how, and what was his or her reaction, while all of this was happening?

Smith: My publisher is William Stacey Cowles. He is the fifth generation Cowles to own and publish the newspaper (going back to 1880s). He has worked closely with the mayor on critical economic development issues, served with him on boards and encountered him countless times in social settings. Yet he has been thoroughly supportive from the start. Has not gotten in the way. Has stood by us steadily. I’m proud of him.

Witt: So in this era of consolidation, corporate ownership, dwindling resources for newsrooms, migration to citizen journalism and even talk of a death spiral for newspapers, what’s to become of this kind of journalism?

Smith: I have to say this project probably would have been undertaken in most mainstream newsrooms. Given what we knew, I don’t know of any editor who would have walked away. It’s tough. But this is what we’re here for and I don’t think my colleagues would have been deterred. I have more faith in them, maybe, than they have in me.

Witt: I noticed you have expended an incredible amount of time answering questions from the public and from other members of the news media about this story. Would you have done so 10 years ago or is this because of the super-charged political atmosphere and all the cries of bias and the public polls that show distrust in journalists?

Smith: Well, first, I said “yes” to the first few media requests because they came in and it seemed that journalists should respond when they can. This was still building late last week and there was only marginal interest. The Sunday New York Times changed that and we suddenly had a frenzy on our hands.

We decided to back way off on the national stuff…doing the tabloid talk shows, the cable debate shows, there seems no percentage in that. We’ve agreed to most NPR stuff because I respect them. And I’ve agreed to some network news stuff, but so far not the magazine shows. We’re trying to be selective. We’ve turned down 30 or 40 shows. Name it and they have called.

That wasn’t expected, and we didn’t have a mechanism in place to handle that. So we were caught short. The downside of saying no is we leave the field open to everyone else to frame the story and we’re not there to tell what really happened. But I don’t have an alternative, really.

Much of what you see with me is recycled from a couple of interviews and from local stuff I gave to the local TVs. It’s showing up everywhere.

And the only reason you’re seeing me is my two reporters steadfastly refuse to do TV (security reasons) and the managing editor and city editor will do radio, but not TV. This is a lesson learned. God forbid we find ourselves drowning in TV producers again, but next time we’ll bring in someone early to the project and prep them to do all the media stuff.

Witt: We feel honored then. I know you have to run, but I want to revisit this one statement you made about other editors: “I have more faith in them, maybe, than they have in me.” Are you saying doing this story could actually hurt your journalism career?

Smith: Well, I think it probably could. I heard an academic on MSNBC earlier equate this with the plagiarism and fabrication scandals. That’s tough company and unfair. But I think we all realize that, given the incredible passion we’re seeing, and anger, that this could hurt. But then, I’m an old fart. I will be retiring in 10 years or so and don’t aspire to much more. I have come to love this community and figure I’ll stick around if they’ll have me.

Let me just say this, and I don’t mean for it to be self-serving. But we went into this with our eyes wide open. We had a public figure, our mayor, one of the most powerful men in the state, potentially preying on youngsters, apparently trading on his office for sex, possibly involved in an abuse ring in the past. It took a lot of guts to go after this story. And maybe my colleagues, who have been a little gun shy in the last couple of years, should think about that. Michael Jackson or Mayor West. Garden clubs or Mayor West. My reporters are brave folk. My editors are bold. My publisher is steadfast. That ain’t bad.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links compiled by guest blogger Leonard Witt…

Tim in Comments says:

With reporting like this newspapers would not be losing circulation.
This is a niche that the local newspaper can fill that no other organization can match. If they do this in a cost effective manner they will succeed.

Jeff Jarvis mostly thinks the Spokesman-Review was wrong, writing in part:

In this age of transparency, acting like someone you’re not and lying is not the way to get the news.
Imagine if every blogger out there tried to run a sting operation on anyone else and published it on the internet. It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.

He, as does The New York Times code of ethics, which is generally against false identities, says it is okay for restaurant reviewers. Finally Jarvis writes:

The lines get a bit fuzzy. But I do believe that entrapment, deception, and lying are not the best ways to get the news.

Witt note: The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is frequently mentioned by Smith in his newspaper’s defense, before I get back to the right, wrong or maybe arguments I want to post exactly what it says:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story

And here is a whole plethora of journalism codes of ethics.

Editor & Publisher has its own plethora of editors commenting about the Spokane story, echoing this statement:

“I don’t permit deception; I would not allow it,” said Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We go into reporting in a straighter way. We are not private investigators, we are journalists. Undercover is a method of the past.”

Or this statement:

“We have a rule against that, and it would take extreme circumstances to break the rule,” said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. “But I cannot foresee them. It is not something we have done in my memory.”

Well, what do you think?

Dan Irving making a comment at Jarvis’s Buzzmachine thinks:

In this particular case: If the reporter/s just wanted to out a gay mayor then this was a pretty smarmy way to do it. Being gay may be a political landmind but it is in no way against the law.
On the other hand if they had some idea that he was both gay and had a history of pedophelia then a sting operation would be totally above board in my opinion. It would be like setting up a honeypot to trap hackers. It isn’t unethical - the mayor went looking and got caught. It could just have well been a police sting operation he stumbled into. See Operation Pin.

Witt Note: Interesting stuff, this ethics. Want to know more? Turn to the Poynter’s Media Ethics Bibliography.

Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, joins the discussion in our comment section taking Steve Smith’s side saying:

This is public service journalism at its best.
And as for the supposed ethical issues — so what if, as reported by Editor & Publisher, the editors in Philadelphia and Indianapolis piously say they wouldn’t have taken the measures that Smith took to make his story airtight ?
All that tells me is that if Jim West, or any other Internet predator, was mayor of Philadelphia or Indianapolis, he’d probably be home free. What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of ? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor’s identity before the Spokesman-Review went into print ?
Where I come from, we don’t call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism.

John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro (N.C.) News-Record, joins the discussion at his blog under the headline “Never Say Never.” Writing of Steve Smith, he says in part:

He’s dead on when he suggests a disconnect between citizens and editors on this issue.
We don’t go undercover or lie to get stories either, but I think Julia Wallace of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has it right when she told Editor & Publisher that she hadn’t done it before, but could envision a time when it might be necessary. “You would have to be totally transparent about it. The question is when are you being unclear, and when are you being deceptive?”

Romenesko points us to even more discussions as the matter continues to be debated. Should Smith be getting more support from editors?

Editor Steve Smith on the Spokesman-Review having a liberal bias:

Just for those convinced the paper “outed” a conservative Republican and that this is somehow a liberal paper —- for what it’s worth, in the 2004 election, our editorial board endorsed Bush (the only major paper in the state), George Nethercutt, conservative Republican for U.S. Senate, and Dino Rossi, the just-that-close Republican candidate for governor. While the paper did not support many of Jim West’s social issues stands, it did endorse him in every election in memory. Folks in Spokane would be hysterical hearing someone call us a liberal rag.

Jeff Jarvis after looking at the pelthora of ethics codes said maybe we should consolidate them all down to Don’t lie. Don’t sell out, and Andrew Krucoff in a comment at Jeff’s site weighed in for individual codes, and I quote in full:

A local newspaper (or any for that matter) does not have to answer to your, my, an academic’s, out of touch old school editor’s, or any organization’s code of ethics other than the ones they’ve determined and created for themselves that are in the best interests of serving the welfare of their readership. These are decisions for each newspaper to make and they wouldn’t be around for very long if their code of ethics was that far out-of-whack with their constituents or illegal, obviously.
Of course, you don’t have to dig deep into these institutional prescribed codes, like ASNE’s, to find total justication for what the Spokane paper did: “The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.” Sounds about right to me.
Ultimately, a newspaper need only answer to its readers and in this case there is overwhelming support for the paper from Spokane citizens. That’s not “bad journalism” that’s just good public service journalism. They’re damn lucky none of those big city editors or academics who are so short-sighted and arrogant to call this “bad for journalism” are not the editor of their newspaper.
I think Jay Rosen said it best: “The case does not lend itself to “rules.” What it requires instead is judgment, and that holds for we critics and observers, too.”
Selling-out is betraying your values and going against what you know is right. Kudos to Steve Smith for not doing that while serving in the best interests of Spokane citizens.

Sisyphus in comments points us to an AEJMC paper Undercover Reporting, Hidden Cameras and the Ethical Decision-Making Process: A Refinement

Anna in comments asks:

How can we find out whether there’s a consensus within the profession as to how the standards (i.e. code of ethics) should actually be applied, in a standardized set of cases?
And if there is no consensus, of what use are the standards?

Posted by Leonard Witt at May 11, 2005 12:01 AM   Print


Excellent work.

Posted by: Mark Anderson at May 11, 2005 1:33 AM | Permalink

With reporting like this newpapers would not be losing circulation.

This is a niche that the local newspaper can fill that no other organization can match. If they do this in a cost effective manner they will succeed.

Posted by: Tim at May 11, 2005 7:52 AM | Permalink

Leonard, you forgot to ask Spoksman-Review editor Steve Smith the most important questions:

1. What is your political party affiliation?
2. How would you label your political ideology, liberal or conservative?
3. When you decided to make the investigation, were you aware that its publication would cause your target great political damage?
4. Were you aware of your target's political affiliation and ideology when you made the decision to investigate?
5. Can you site similar investigations of liberals or Democrats that your newspaper has undertaken?
6. Will you prepare and release unedited transcripts of all discussions you had with staff, during each stage of the decision-making process, about the impetus and motivation for beginning and continuing the investigation and its publication?
7. What proof can you offer that your decisions to investigate and publish were not politically or ideologically motivated?

Posted by: Trained Auditor at May 11, 2005 11:56 AM | Permalink

Actually, Steve Smith has said at CJR Daily (and in other forums) that he believes that Jim West has been a terrific mayor who has been effective dealing with various issues in Spokane that other politicos had let fester.
But he has also said:
"The key issue here -- and the mayor acknowledges this, though he draws a different conclusion than we do -- but he acknowledges that he's offered benefits to individuals he's contacted online. He's offered gifts, personal favors, introductions, scholarships, and, in the case of our fictional student, an internship in his own office, in return for sexual favors. In our view, that is a misuse of office. It transcends private conduct and moves it squarely into the arena of official conduct, and it warrants investigation and publication."

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at May 11, 2005 3:17 PM | Permalink

"Let me add quickly. I think the knee jerk reaction of journalists is "we don't lie." I agree."

Well I don't. Exhibit A: Judy Miller.

As I have said elsewhere Steven Smith and everyone responsible for the Spokesman Review espose should get the Pulitzer Prize.
I fear, however that the Pulitzers are run by wusses like Jeff Jarvis.

No guts, glory.

My favorite detail: the creep was too cheap to even pay for the kid's dinner!

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at May 11, 2005 3:39 PM | Permalink

Those editors who criticise the Internet sting investigation are either living on another planet or simply being economic with the truth. see The Mediabuddies Blog on

Posted by: David Davis at May 11, 2005 4:21 PM | Permalink

Did David Ehrenstein similarly applaud Paula Jones and her attorneys and the whole train of Clinton enemies behind them for nailing Bubba on Lewinsky?

Anyone who thinks this level of tabloid journalism deserves a Pulitzer is totally out to sea in terms of the value of journalism. Well, alright, maybe give them Janet Cooke's.

Posted by: Brian at May 11, 2005 4:42 PM | Permalink

No I did not, as no crime was involved. As I recall (and you prefer to ignore) Ms. Lewinsky was an adult. In fact the record shows she initiated the activity. And I say "activity" because the question posed to Clinto was whether he had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky --"sexual relations" being defined by the court as intercourse in the "Missionary Position."

In other words he wasn't lying.

But that's neihe here not there for Conservabots such as yourself, Brian.

And what, praytell, does Janet Cooke have to do with anything?

Or are you implying a connection in that like her I'm black?

Very classy.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at May 11, 2005 5:00 PM | Permalink

I simply suggest, as is all too predictable, that this undertaking would not have been targeted with such gusto at a Democrat or liberal. Certainly, we may disagree as to the reason why. But please consider ideological or partisan bias as a possible factor.

Posted by: Trained Auditor at May 11, 2005 6:30 PM | Permalink

Then you're (quite deliberately) ignoring the fact that the Spokesman Review supported Mayor McCheese in his past runs for office.

But of course since he's a Republican, their investigation means they're obviously Way Out Liberals now, in league with Noam Chomsky and Al Queda.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at May 11, 2005 6:45 PM | Permalink

I know where you're headed for Trained Auditor. But I've been around the game for 40 years, and I can tell you I've never met an editor who, once he had it nailed down, would shrink from a story this juicy -- the mayor is a chickenhawk ! -- no matter what his politics.
This is public service journalism at its best.
And as for the supposed ethical issues -- so what if, as reported by Editor & Publisher, the editors in Philadelphia and Indianapolis piously say they wouldn't have taken the measures that Smith took to make his story airtight ?
All that tells me is that if Jim West, or any other Internet predator, was mayor of Philadelphia or Indianapolis, he'd probably be home free. What exactly is Steve Smith supposed to be guilty of ? Having the prudence and caution to hire an expert to ascertain the mayor's identity before the Spokesman-Review went into print ?
Where I come from, we don't call that entrapment; we call it responsible journalism.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at May 11, 2005 6:56 PM | Permalink

I am disturbed by idiots who have decided that all "undercover" journalism is suddenly unethical. That's baloney. When journalists engage in illegitimate behavior to get the news, such as posing as a gay "chat room" aficionado in order to entrap a subject, they are behaving unethically and deserve to be ridiculed. When they engage in legitimate behavior, such as to apply for an apartment lease or a job, they are behaving admirably, even if such legitimate or appropriate behavior requires that they offer an alias.

Posted by: steve webster at May 12, 2005 9:15 AM | Permalink

I just want to add another note of praise for what the Spokesman-Review did here. And I fully agree that if newspapers did more of this sort of bold but well considered journalism, they would be much more likely to expand their readership.

Posted by: Gary Borg at May 12, 2005 9:25 AM | Permalink

Just for those convinced the paper "outed" a conservative Republican and that this is somehow a liberal paper --- for what it's worth, in the 2004 election, our editorial board endorsed Bush (the only major paper in the state), George Nethercutt, conservative Republican for U.S. Senate, and Dino Rossi, the just-that-close Republican candidate for governor. While the paper did not support many of Jim West's social issues stands, it did endorse him in every election in memory. Folks in Spokane would be hysterical hearing someone call us a liberal rag.

Posted by: Steven A. Smith at May 12, 2005 4:11 PM | Permalink

Thank you, Steve; thank you, Len. This was a most revealing and very necessary interview. I'm so glad it appeared at PressThink.

I think one thing is clear. The case does not lend itself to "rules." What it requires instead is judgment, and that holds for we critics and observers, too.

Perhaps this has been mentioned elsewhere, but I haven't seen it. A reference point is the Oregonian's experience in the Bob Packwood sexual harrassment episode, which of course was many episodes over many years. (He was a Senator from Oregon, and a major political figure in the state.) The harrassment was revealed by the Washington Post, not the Oregonian, which missed the story, even though it had picked up many hints over the years.

As I recall readers were quite disappointed in their newspaper.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at May 12, 2005 6:01 PM | Permalink

Steven A. Smith,

I applaud what you did and how you did it. I also appreciate that you brought in a forensic computer expert and that he, not one of your journalists, used a false identity.

Having said that, it may be informative to distinguish between what the Spokesman-Review did and, for example, what ABC's Primetime Live did in the Food Lion case.

Undercover Reporting, Hidden Cameras and the Ethical Decision-Making Process: A Refinement

Bok argues that the fundamental glue holding the fabric of society together is trust, which is seriously eroded whenever deception occurs (1989, 18-19). She acknowledges, though, that some circumstances justify the use of deception, specifically when the deception will do more good than the harm it causes, when its use has been rationally chosen and there are no other means of gathering important information, and when the deceiver is willing to publicly explain his decision-making process (Bok, 1989, 90-103; Bok, 1983, 263-264).

Posted by: Sisyphus at May 13, 2005 2:30 AM | Permalink

Maybe journalism ethics should be approached more systematically.

Is there a compilation of journalism ethics case studies, with data on how the profession weighs in on them?

Poynter links to IU's Ethics cases ("...created for teachers, researchers, professional journalists and consumers of news to help them explore ethical issues in journalism"), but "exploring" is the key word here: there's a fundamental piece missing, namely, a sense of general agreement on the answers.

How can we find out whether there's a consensus within the profession as to how the standards (i.e. code of ethics) should actually be applied, in a standardized set of cases?
And if there is no consensus, of what use are the standards?

(obviously there will always be some borderline cases; that's a given. )

Posted by: Anna at May 13, 2005 5:58 AM | Permalink

Jay wrote

“As I recall readers were quite disappointed in their newspaper.”

about the Portland Oregonian’s failure to cover the Packwood scandal. Our daily failed us again in its coverage of former governor Neil Goldschmidt’s rape and sexual abuse of a 14-year old girl while he was mayor of Portland. This AJR article tells the story. Willamette Week’s coverage of Goldschmidt earned it this year’s Pulitzer for investigative reporting (disclosure: I freelance for WW, and as a restaurant reviewer it’s apparently okay for me to lie about my identity).

The Oregonian could learn a few things from the Spokesman-Review.

Posted by: Jim Dixon at May 13, 2005 11:39 AM | Permalink

Well then, I'd like to see the shoe put on the other foot: Use of deception, perhaps by a fair and balanced competitor, to record and widely publish certain journalists' private discussions and confidential decision-making when selecting, reporting and editing news stories.

I think that might shed additional disinfecting light on the the apparent sausage factory that constitutes our dominant media's political journalism.

Posted by: Traied Auditor at May 13, 2005 12:22 PM | Permalink

A question for those who are worried about the journalistic ethics concerning this story. What are the alternatives to this kind of deception?

And are they preferable to what happened?

Posted by: Tim at May 13, 2005 3:33 PM | Permalink

Trained Auditor:
Maybe they could do a podcast of decision-making sessions and page one planning meetings.
But I'm afraid it might be anticlimactic -- about as interesting as a podcast of me doing my taxes on a rainy Saturday afternoon in April.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at May 13, 2005 5:14 PM | Permalink

TA: Would you be willing to provide your thoughts on S-R's Daily Briefing blog? (There is also an editors blog)

Posted by: Sisyphus at May 13, 2005 6:02 PM | Permalink

I would suppose the Spokesman-Review's blog, conveying editor's thoughts at news meetings, is fairly well sanitized.

Of course, in my minds-eye-view of the newsroom, a la "Lou Grant", I imagine Ed Asner telling Robert Walden, "We got a story about guns Joe, get me a quote and photo of a victim being loaded into the back of an ambulance...", despite the unrepresentative protrayal of gun ownership such an image conveys.

But I realize that insiders say the news transaction is not so transparent:

"The old argument that the networks and other "media elites" have a liberal bias is so blatantly true that it's hardly worth discussing anymore. No, we don't sit around in dark corners and plan strategies on how we're going to slant the news. We don't have to. It comes naturally to most reporters." - Bernard Goldberg, CBS News, in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, February 13, 1996.

Robert Walden's character would know how to convey a sinsiter image of guns without Ed Asner explicitly telling him to do so.

And I assume the same is true with respect to coverage of politicians and social issues.

Posted by: Trained Auditor at May 13, 2005 7:28 PM | Permalink

Smoking guns aren't the issue here. It's smoking teenage boys.

Posted by: David Ehrenstein at May 13, 2005 7:38 PM | Permalink

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Posted by: Business Cards at May 16, 2005 2:31 AM | Permalink

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