By: Joe Strupp
Editors at several major newspapers told E&P today that they would not direct an undercover operation on the Internet, as the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., did in its investigation of Mayor Jim West’s alleged sexual misconduct. In each case, newsroom leaders said the act of misrepresentation would be enough to void the idea.
“It is important that sources be aware that they are dealing with journalists,” said Tim Franklin, editor of The Sun in Baltimore. “It is not something that I feel comfortable with. This is a form of undercover journalism that, thankfully, went out of vogue in the early 1980’s.”
Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, agreed. “Fundamentally, you don?t misrepresent who you are,” he said. “That is a problem.”
“I don?t permit deception; I would not allow it,” said Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We go into reporting in a straighter way. We are not private investigators, we are journalists. Undercover is a method of the past.”
The editors were commenting on the Spokesman-Review’s controversial coverage of Spokane Mayor West, whom the paper reported had led a secret gay life, had allegedly molested boys years ago, and had “been trolling the Internet for young lovers while serving as mayor.” The stories first ran last Thursday and have sparked national interest while prompting West to take a leave of absence from his post.
As part of the paper’s reporting, Spokesman-Review editors hired a computer expert to pose as a gay man in an online chat room, uncovering some of West’s alleged Internet conversations. Editor Steven Smith has said this was necessary to confirm what the paper had learned by other means, and he continues to defend this approach.
Although some editors, such as John Mancini of Newsday and Martin Kaiser of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, declined to comment, those who did offer an opinion were united in their opposition to such a tactic.
“We have a rule against that, and it would take extreme circumstances to break the rule,” said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. “But I cannot foresee them. It is not something we have done in my memory.”
Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, said “We have a strong policy against misrepresenting ourselves.” But he added, refering specifically to the Spokane case, “I don’t know if this would violate that policy.”
Julia Wallace, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said there might be a reasonable situation in which to do such a thing, but said she had never done it. “You would have to be totally transparent about it,” she told E&P. “The question is when are you being unclear, and when are you being deceptive?”
Wallace cited the Chicago Sun-Times’ “Mirage” project in the late 1970s, in which the paper set up a tavern and wrote about the public officials and inspectors who came in to shake down the owners. “How else would you have gotten that story?” she said.
At The Indianapolis Star, editor Dennis Ryerson also had doubts about the Spokane approach. “On its face, it is not something I would have done,” he said about the Spokane approach. “I think there are other ways to get that information and with everyone challenging our credibility [as an industry] we have to think about how we represent ourselves when we pursue the truth.”
Ryerson said the paper had so much other damaging information about the mayor, they could have offered a good report on his private life without going the undercover Internet chat room route. “They did have a critical mass of information,” he added.
But is there a time when going undercover is necessary to expose serious wrongdoing by a public official? “I would never say never,” Ryerson admitted. “If there is something that would be of great public harm. But we have to set the bar high.”
In a note sent to the Romenesko web site this week, Editor Smith wrote, “In my view, the online world may cause us to adopt news gathering techniques which we strived to avoid in the real world. The cyber world creates an environment of anonymity that is hard to penetrate. At least that was our thinking. We knew from the start that the decision would elicit controversy.”
When asked if the Spokane story had increased their interest in using the Internet for reporting purposes, even without undercover efforts, editors said it had not. “The Internet is another place you need to go for information and be much more familiar with,” Bennett said. “But not necessarily from this event.”