Newspaper's ruse raises issue of journalistic ethics
The use by The Spokesman- Review of a computer expert posing as an 18-year-old man in a gay chat room raises ethical questions about whether...
Seattle Times staff reporter
The use by The Spokesman-Review of a computer expert posing as an 18-year-old man in a gay chat room raises ethical questions about whether or under what circumstances news organizations should use such techniques.
"I think it's a risk, a journalistic risk, to ask people to believe you're telling the truth when you're engaging in a fictional approach," said Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a St. Petersburg, Fla., school dedicated to teaching journalists. "The threshold has to be very high."
The paper reported that Spokane Mayor Jim West used his public position to entice young men he met in an online chat room on a gay Web site. The newspaper detailed West's activities at the site.
Spokesman-Review editor Steven Smith said the decision to use the computer expert wasn't made lightly. It became clear, he said, that the approach was necessary if the paper wanted absolute certainty about West's identity in the chat room.
But Colon said that while he appreciates the newspaper's desire to document independently allegations made by West's accusers, he was not completely comfortable with the "fictional approach" because it reminded him of police entrapment.
The issue in entrapment, Colon said, is whether it catches criminals or encourages behavior that otherwise might not have taken place. "You're sort of acting as someone who helps that scenario take place. Is that a wrong thing? I would say more that it raises questions and flags that I think make it more complicated and the information less clean."
Creating a fictional scenario also raises "questions for a reader who is being asked to believe what they are being told, and to base that belief on a lie that was participated in by the news organization," Colon said.
But there are times, he said, when such actions "might seem worth the potential loss of credibility that can ensue once people are told what's taken place. ... The information you are going to provide has to be so much more helpful in establishing the points the newspaper wants to make that they can't be made in other, more credit-worthy ways."
Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, takes a much harder line.
"I absolutely deplore it," she said. "Journalists should be journalists. They should not be cops. It is not an appropriate role for journalists to be conducting sting operations."
Smith of The Spokesman-Review said he understands such concerns and "I would be lying if I said I'm not troubled by it. It's a step we took with great reluctance," after many newsroom discussions and after consulting with outside journalism-ethics experts.
Reporters and editors asked themselves whether they could obtain on their own the information they needed.
"What we were trying to ascertain was whether the man we were tracking on [the Web site] was, in fact, Jim West. ... We had allegations from three individuals that they had interacted with this person and that this person was West. But we needed more substantial verification than they were able to provide.
"The bottom line was we needed help," Smith said.
The paper's editors hired a former customs agent who had a background in conducting child-pornography stings. They soon realized, Smith said, that to be certain about West's identity, the paper would need the former agent to pose as an individual chatting on the gay Web site.
"Posing as something we're not — in our business, that is a step rarely taken," Smith said. "It's the first time in my 34 years I've been involved in what would be considered a deception to obtain information."
From the outset, the newspaper decided to explain to readers about the use of the outside expert and fictional scenario but debated whether to publish the chat transcripts. In the end, it did so. "It was only fair that readers saw what we saw to see if we quoted people fairly, accurately and contextually," Smith said.
Smith said public opinion has been running about 10 or 15 to 1 in favor of the stories. Those upset say they don't believe the allegations, or they consider the stories an invasion of privacy, Smith said. He said readers did not seem upset over the fictional scenario. "I think it's an industry issue, not an issue for our readers," Smith said.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.