Jim West- The Newspaper's Role

by Joel Smith

Eight-to-one. That was the ratio Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith used to describe the feedback his newspaper was getting in the aftermath of its May 5 publication of a bundle of stories indicting Spokane Mayor Jim West. Though the paper's decision to hire a forensic expert to engage the mayor in an online chat room created a stir of controversy, Smith said that responses to the investigation were eight-to-one in favor of the Spokesman-Review. He downplayed the ethical question involved in the paper's Web espionage, calling it an industry issue and insisting that it didn't concern ordinary readers.

Not quite. As The Inlander pointed out in the week after the first story broke, there were plenty of ordinary citizens who were outraged at the Review for its unorthodox tactics. (A quick glance at the paper's own online message board proved it.)

Our recent poll reveals even more. We asked 600 people what they thought of the Review's decision to hire an undercover forensic expert to engage the mayor online. About 40 percent said they thought that was "acceptable," but almost 36 percent said they found the practice "unacceptable," with 23 percent still undecided (and a few who passed on the question).

Some poll respondents, contacted this week to elaborate on their choices, describe the Review's tactics as "low," "shady" and "kind of small-townish." Others call them "appropriate" and perfectly "all right."

Joey Paulson, 19, a Shiloh Hills resident who identifies himself as politically moderate, says "I totally understand why they did it, but I don't think it was right."

Lori Randazzo, a 50-year-old South Hill liberal, goes farther. "I don't believe their tactics were ethical or moral in the least," she says. "The reason that I disagree is that I believe, in taking the action that they did, they are now creating the news instead of reporting it."

Many express their concern that engaging in online spying makes newspapers look more like law enforcement agencies. "Had there been a police or FBI investigation involved, I might be OK with that. But a local newspaper? I don't know," says Casey, a 26-year-old Hangman Valley resident.

But Rex Hill, 42, doesn't see anything shady. "It's something the police does -- so if the police does it, why can't the news media? It's something society seems to accept."

Still others question the Review's motives. "They do what they can to sell papers," says liberal 26-year-old Jara Baker.

"Obviously the people at the Spokesman have a vendetta against West or they wouldn't have spent so much time investigating in the first place," says Arlene Hanson, who voted for Tom Grant.

Randazzo adds, of West, "He must have really pissed off Betsy [Cowles] one day."

Our numbers indicate that more people support the Review's methodology than not (by a slim margin), but they don't seem to support Smith's contention that his readers find the paper's ethics irrelevant. Nor do they lend much credence to the idea that they're eight-to-one in favor of the paper's investigation.

Steve Blewett, a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University, says he's surprised that the paper's approval rating is as high as it is: "I think that most people are very uncomfortable with what they would perceive as artificial means used to augment an investigation."

Blewett himself says he fully approves of the paper's methods, however. "I think it did what it had to do," he says, "regardless of the perception other people might have had as a result of it." Our poll did not ask whether it results in weakened credibility for a newspaper that has drawn considerable controversy in the last 10 years.

Blewett, however, predicts the West investigation will only bolster the paper's credibility, noting the caution and deliberateness with which they made the decision to use the computer expert. "The fact is, they did their homework. They made sure they were within legal and ethical boundaries when they did it. If the Review had used the same kind of checks and balances in its coverage of River Park Square, we might have had a very different outcome to River Park Square."

Kenton Bird, a professor and the interim director of the University of Idaho's School of Journalism and Mass Media, agrees, saying that the key to the Review's success will be its transparency. "Rebuilding credibility is a slow process," he says. "Being as open as possible is one way to show the readers that you're bringing them behind the curtain."

Bird says that Smith's willingness to be interviewed by national news outlets, and the attempts the paper has made to be open with the public (publishing the mayor's e-mail and chat transcripts online, hosting live chats on their own Web site), have "showed the very real agony that journalists go through when they report about someone's personal life in a way that affects their public reputation."

Michael Arrieta-Walden, the public editor of Portland's Oregonian, who weighed in on the Review's tactics in an editorial in early May, admits, "I still struggle with them having used the information of the informant for the basis of stories." He says he would have preferred to use the "moto-brock" transcripts as background information, to corroborate what the paper was already hearing elsewhere.

But he, too, applauds the way the Review made its decision and the way it's dealt with the controversy since then. "In terms of transparency and their openness to criticism," he says, "I think they've really been a model for the country. That's huge in terms of helping any paper's credibility."

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About The Author

Joel Smith

Joel Smith is the media editor for The Inlander. In that position, he manages and directs Inlander.com and edits all copy for the website, the newspaper and all other special publications. A former staff writer, he has reported on local and state politics, the environment, urban development and culture, Spokane's...