If readers of the alternative Willamette Week claimed the Portland, Ore., newspaper is publishing garbage, they wouldn't be far off. A recent reporting gambit, which had two journalists sifting the trash of local officials, has sparked a dispute over the legality, or at least the ethics, of a paper perusing city leaders' waste. Portland Mayor Vera Katz has even threatened legal action. "It's unscrupulous behavior, it's unethical," she told E&P.
The trash talk began in March when Portland police were investigating alleged drug use by Officer Gina Hoesly. During their investigation, officers found traces of illegal drugs in garbage outside Hoesly's house and used it as evidence to obtain a search warrant for her home. The search turned up drug paraphernalia and a diary describing apparent drug use that led to an indictment against the officer in June. A judge recently ruled the garbage seizure illegal, with an appeal pending.
Willamette Week reporters asked Portland Police Chief Mark A. Kroeker whether searching someone's garbage constituted an invasion of privacy. His reply, according to the paper, was that garbage, once placed on the street in front of a home, becomes public property. The paper decided to give the chief, as well as Katz and Multnomah County District Attorney Michael D. Schrunk, a chance to experience someone going through their own garbage. "We felt a need to turn the tables," Editor Mark Zusman said. "It was a straightforward and simple way to hold their feet to the fire."
Reporters Chris Lydgate and Nick Budnick staked out each official's home, went through garbage and recycling bins left out by the street, and wrote up their findings for a Dec. 24 story. While the reporters uncovered no illegal substances or evidence of wrongdoing, they managed to reveal, among other things, that Chief Kroeker apparently is a failed dieter.
Although Schrunk laughed off the effort as a humorous stunt, Kroeker reportedly called the reporters "bottom feeders." In an editorial Friday, The Oregonian, Portland's lone general-interest daily, joined criticism of the police trash search, but also reprimanded the weekly for going through the public officials' garbage. The Seattle Times, however, weighed in with a Dec. 26 editorial that called the weekly's reporting a good lesson for journalists -- and public officials.
Among journalism watchdogs, the paper's efforts drew mixed reviews. On one hand, Keith Woods, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., criticized the weekly for what he termed "a stunt" that "borders on abuse of the tool of journalism." On the other, Tim Gleason, dean of the School of Journalism & Communications at the nearby University of Oregon in Eugene, commended the project, telling E&P, "I think it is quite appropriate." And Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, agreed: "One has to admire the enterprise of someone willing to do this sort of research."