A Case Study in Ethics in Journalism
In Defense of the Spokane Spokesman Review

In Defense of the Spokane Spokesman Review
Newspaper articles, blogs and in comments several voices defended the actions of the Spokesman-Review in using an undercover forensic computer expert posing as a 17-year-old. Here’s one:

Never Say Never

Jim Robinson

News and Record Editor


The Spokane Spokesman-Review's articles on the sexual habits of the city's mayor are being picked apart in journalism circles. Should a newspaper go undercover to get a story? No, say editors. Yes, say readers. There is, of course, a long history of it.

Spokane editor Steve Smith said: 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.

I don't doubt his feedback numbers. 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?"

Update: Of course, I am not taking into account going undercover to determine whether dry cleaners are charging extra for over-sized garments!

© 2006 Leonard Witt