A Case Study in Ethics in Journalism
The Ethical Critiques

The Ethical Critiques

What the editorials said; see the Spokane Spokesman-Review's full list or view a selected list below. Most articles are also available at their original external locations.

Solid Spokane story didn’t need subterfuge to spice it up

David Zeeck

Tacoma News Tribune

Newsrooms in Washington state and around the nation were buzzing last week over the tactics The Spokesman-Review used in reporting that Spokane’s mayor was an accused child abuser and a bisexual who trolled the Internet looking for dates with young gay men.

To help prove their case against the mayor, the newspaper employed a forensic computer expert to pose as an 18-year-old in an online chat. The use of such a ruse is an extreme practice in journalism, generally used only when no other course of proof is available.

There was no quibble about reporting the accusations by two named adults who said that – as children – they were sexually abused by Jim West, now Spokane’s mayor and the former state Senate Republican majority leader. Given West’s stature and political résumé, he is arguably the most powerful politician east of the mountains.

The accusations of pedophilia can be judged on their merits. The accusers are both convicted felons who accused West only recently. One of the men is now suing Spokane County for the harm he says he suffered as a youth.

They each reported events they say occurred more than two decades ago, when West was a Spokane County deputy sheriff and Boy Scout leader. A third man’s story was published Saturday. He said West told him to “forget it” after he told West that a fellow Scoutmaster had sexually molested him.

The allegations of child abuse are damning, and if more witnesses come forward, might drive West from office. Unless recent accusations surface, however, he likely won’t be investigated for a crime because the statute of limitations has expired.

I know the top two editors at the Spokane newspaper – Steve Smith and Gary Graham. I respect their work and judgment and commend them for the thorough process they followed in publishing these reports.

But at least three questions linger:

Is the ruse justified? Why employ a forensic computer expert to portray a naive, 18-year-old gay high school senior and have him find West and engage in suggestive Internet chats in which West eventually offers him a city internship?

Editor Smith said the expert was employed only to verify West’s online identity, because the paper already had transcripts of a person they believed was West chatting about sex with at least one other young gay man. Both expert and story went beyond this stated purpose.

The expert established West’s identity, but then went further, running right up to the line of entrapping West. As one of our staff reporters put it: “What that proves is that West, if aroused by sex chat with someone above the age of consent, will respond.”

Without the expert’s ruse, they already had their 53-year-old mayor trolling for sex online and admitting to having consensual sex with an 18-year-old he met through a chat room. Gay or straight, that’s not the sort of behavior I want my mayor engaging in. I see no reason to concoct a second story.

Did the mayor use his office to offer anything of real value? The most damning interchange between West and the expert poseur is when West offers him an internship.

West’s defense was this: “Any kid in this town who walked into my office and filled out an application and could come to work, dressed properly and clean, could be an intern in my office.”

Is this true? How many internships did West give out? Are they paid or unpaid? Is any public money at stake?

It’s not uncommon for politicians to offer short-term, unpaid internships to constituents or their children. Is this internship any different?

I haven’t seen that the newspaper answered these questions. It did report Saturday that the city was seeking an independent investigation into the matter. But a little more reporting might resolve the questions.

The failure to finish the reporting of this episode further undermines the use of a ruse.

Why make such a big deal of “outing” West as a gay or bisexual “hypocrite”?

The paper gave considerable coverage to the “hypocrisy” of West engaging in gay sex but supporting conservative, or as the paper put it, “anti-gay” legislation or policy.

The paper quoted multiple sources saying, in essence, that a public figure deserves to be “outed” as gay if his or her legislative record doesn’t line up with what is perceived as the gay political agenda.

The most truly “anti-gay” legislation the paper says West supported was a 1990 measure that would have banned gays from working as teachers and in other occupations.

The remainder of the article on West’s “hypocrisy” cites his opposition to same-sex marriage, his opposition to insuring the partners of government employees, and – in an interview transcript – his failure to support hate crime legislation that would have made it a special offense to assault a gay person.

Is it not possible to be gay and conservative? The Log Cabin Republicans come to mind.

But the paper seems to justify its “outing” of West because his views don’t conform to the stereotype “gay agenda,” if there is such a thing among so diverse a population. Of course that provokes the question: Would the paper have left him in the closet if he supported the presumed gay agenda?

The paper had two strong stories:

 • The mayor is accused of being a child abuser.

 • The mayor trolls sex chat rooms on the Internet looking for 18-year-old sex partners.

Those two stories hold up, and neither required the expert poseur.

The paper would have been better served by completing its reporting on city internships before citing that as the mayor offering something of value in return for sex. (It might turn out to be true; we just don’t know yet.)

And rather than using a separate story to repeatedly lash the mayor for not supporting a pro-gay political agenda, its position would have been stronger had it briefly juxtaposed his sex habits with his legislative record. Readers are qualified on their own to draw their conclusions about whether hypocrisy was at work.

All said, the stories were pertinent and explosive. But they were undercut by using the computer expert as date bait, by taking political sides on whether the mayor’s politics were hypocritical and by using the offer of an internship as the “smoking gun” when we don’t know if it’s a cap pistol or a .44 magnum.

A little more restraint – and a little more reporting – would have made the stories more pointed and more powerful.

Dave Zeeck 253-597-8434


Did Spokane paper act properly?

Ethics experts differ whether it should have used deception

Dan Richman

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Ethics experts were divided yesterday whether The Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper acted properly when it hired an investigator to pose online as an underage gay boy, who was then solicited for sex by Spokane Mayor Jim West.

West was targeted yesterday in a major Spokesman-Review story alleging that the mayor has a 25-year history of using positions of public trust to develop sexual relationships with boys and young men.

For part of that story, the paper in November hired a Spokane-based forensic computer expert who has helped track child pornography through the use of online chat technology. The computer expert, whose name the paper did not reveal, posed as Moto-Brock, a 17-year-old high school student, first on the Gay.com Web site and later on AOL Instant Messenger.

The computer expert, a former U.S. Customs Service agent, kept records of the conversations showing that West offered Moto-Brock a City Hall internship, raising the question of whether the mayor was abusing his office.

Among those panning the paper's approach was Bill Babcock, chairman of the journalism department at California State University-Long Beach.

"It's one thing for the police or the FBI to pose as a 17-year-old boy," Babcock said. "It's another for a journalist to take on the role of junior G-man and do something that essentially is considered police work."

He said "good gumshoe reporting" could have accomplished the same result, so the deception wasn't justified.

Babcock acknowledged that no person today can reasonably expect privacy in online activities, especially in a chat room, and especially when that person is "as sophisticated as one would assume the mayor of a major city would be." But the paper still acted improperly, he said -- while admitting that there's room for debate on the paper's tactics.

Defending the paper's approach was Kelly McBride, ethics expert for the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., school for journalists.

"In general, I discourage journalists from using deception to get a story, but this case comes pretty close to passing the test I use," she said.

That's because the subject matter is of significant public interest, all other alternatives were exhausted, readers were told about the deception, and the mayor was given a chance to provide his side of the story, she said.

There's a different standard today for newspapers' using deception than there was 20 years ago, McBride said. The newspaper business has a lengthy history of undercover investigations, including the legendary Chicago Sun-Times' Mirage Tavern sting in 1977, which used a hidden camera to expose corruption among city politicians and workers.

But today, "there's a general expectation that if the public is going to trust the media, they will have to be transparent all the time, including in the news-gathering process."

Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith acknowledged that his paper's approach was bound to raise questions.

"We are portraying ourselves through our agent as something we're not, and that is a significant ethical question, and we debated it at great length before we decided to move forward," he said in an interview yesterday.

The decision to use deception took place after "a two- or three-day conversation" in late summer or early fall last year. Top editors used the Poynter Institute's six-point checklist for ethical decisions, including how important the story was, whether the information could be obtained in any other way and what unintended harm might come from using deception.

They hired the outside computer expert because the staff lacked the skills needed to record online conversations and trace their source, Smith said.

Having decided to use deception, the paper said it made sure its expert didn't initiate contact with the mayor. It said that once the mayor contacted the expert, the expert let the mayor bring up sex and move the relationship along.

"We did not want to initiate any escalation," Smith said.

As to West's privacy rights, "We felt in this case the value of the issues and their severity far outweighed any consideration of the privacy matters," said Managing Editor Gary Graham.

In the story's aftermath yesterday, hundreds of reader calls and e-mails registered "10 or 15 to one" in favor of the reporting, with some concerns about the mayor's privacy, he said.

"Journalists can absolutely argue about the validity of the consultant approach, and I am understanding of that debate," Smith said. "Other editors might potentially make a different decision. But I'm at peace with our call."

P-I reporter Dan Richman can be reached at 206-448-8032 or danrichman@seattlepi.com

Editor's Blog: Important ethical issue

John Temple

Rocky Mountain News

This story about the mayor of Spokane raises an important ethical question. Is it appropriate for a news organization to disguise itself to get a story?

Read the original story.

Then read a Seattle Times story about the journalistic issues it raises.

Personally, I'm very uncomfortable with what the Spokane paper did. But I respect what Steve Smith has said about the process his paper went through to come to the point where it created a fictional character to interact with the mayor. I think there are obvious times where it's appropriate for the journalist to be part of the story. For example, our columnist Bill Johnson writing in a personal style from Iraq. But our readers know Bill and the soldiers he was with knew he was a columnist and could read what he was writing about them on our Web site. Going undercover is problematic. I only did it once as a reporter. The resulting story in The Toronto Star led to a letter to the editor from the head of a major journalism school excoriating me personally. During a national postal strike when it appeared the statements of the government were out of synch with the experience of the public, I got a job as a replacement worker under my real name, without revealing my newspaper affiliation, and worked inside one of the country's largest sorting centers. I discovered that there was a huge gap between what authorities were saying publicly and what the people running the plant told me when they didn't know that I was a reporter. Was I wrong to go in that way? I didn't think so. I thought it was the only way I could get the story. Of course it was only worth it because it was an important story involving a nation's postal system. That must have been what Steve Smith was thinking about the story of Spokane's mayor. I think it took guts to do what the paper did.


© 2006 Leonard Witt