By: E&P Staff
The Spokesman-Review newspaper violated some journalistic principles in its coverage of a controversial $110 million downtown shopping mall development owned by the same family that owned the newspaper, a new study found.
The investigation, requested by the newspaper, was conducted by contract journalist Bill Richards for the Washington News Council. It looked at the paper’s coverage of the mall project between 1994-2005.
At issue was the paper’s coverage of the financing of River Park Square, a downtown shopping mall owned by the wealthy and prominent Cowles family, which owns the newspaper and has many other business interests in the region.
“The newspaper did not investigate thoroughly in a timely manner and report promptly and forthrightly the financial structure of RPS,” the report, which took up two full pages in Sunday’s editions of the newspaper, concluded.
“The newspaper suppressed financial information of importance to decision-makers and the public at-large, but potentially unfavorable to developers,” the report concluded, saying the Cowles family may have indirectly influenced coverage.
Publisher W. Stacey Cowles disputed the suggestion his family influenced coverage.
“At no time did I or any other member of my family direct any coverage or directly edit any coverage,” Cowles wrote to readers Sunday. “The editor and the newsroom made and continue to make their own decisions about RPS and all other news coverage. “
Current editor Steve Smith, who joined the paper in 2002, sought the report. Most of the paper’s coverage of RPS occurred during the era of his predecessor, Chris Peck.
“The council’s findings are troubling, and in my view, they illuminate as nothing else has done why some in our community questioned our RPS coverage and why that story so wounded our credibility,” Smith wrote.
While noting that the publisher disputed the findings of influence, Smith wrote, “in the newsroom, we accept the findings.
“And we sincerely apologize for not adequately living up to our journalistic standards,” Smith wrote.
River Park Square, anchored by a Nordstrom store, was intended to reverse the decline of the city’s core. The project was built with a combination of private and public money, which drew criticism as an inappropriate use of public dollars intended for urban renewal.
The controversy exposed fissures between Spokane’s haves and have nots, but the mall helped spur a renaissance of downtown.
The News Council report was particularly harsh on a since-discarded “no surprises” policy in which the owners were informed of articles about them before they were published.
The report said The Spokesman-Review suffered the potential for self-censorship of the news product by reporters and editors because of the family’s involvement in the mall. It said using the same attorney on related business and newsroom matters created the perception of a conflict of interest and should not occur.
The report suggested the newspaper create a “Cowles Co.” beat to keep tabs on the various business interests of its owners.
“If there is a moral to this RPS story, it is that the publisher-editor relationship got in the way of the public interest in the reporting of a sequence of events of great importance to Spokane’s citizens,” the report said.