Panel on Spokesman-Review’s Jim West Coverage Draws 250

The Washington News Council’s Public Forum on Wednesday, Feb. 8, to discuss the Spokane Spokesman-Review’s controversial coverage of Mayor Jim West, was a huge success.

NOTE: TVW broadcast the event statewide. (If you would like to order a VHS or DVD, please call 206.262.9793)

Nearly 250 people attended the panel discussion in Whitworth College’s Weyerhaeuser Hall from 7-9 pm. An overflow room held another two dozen attendees who watched a closed-circuit screen. In addition to TVW, the event was filmed by Spokane’s local-access channel, Whitworth College, and a crew from “Frontline” doing a documentary for fall broadcast.

The panelists were:

  • Jack Geraghty, former Spokane Mayor, former County Commissioner and former Spokane Chronicle reporter
  • Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
  • Ted McGregor, Editor and Publisher of The Inlander, Spokane’s alternative weekly
  • Steve Smith, Editor of the Spokesman-Review
  • Ginny Whitehouse, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Whitworth College

Moderator John Irby, Associate Professor and Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication, Washington State University (and a Media Member of the Washington News Council), asked each panelist an opening question, invited comments from other panelists, and posed follow-up questions.

Written questions from the audience were also accepted. Dozens of students from Whitworth, Gonzaga University, Eastern Washington University, and Washington State University attended the event and many submitted questions for the panel.

Washington News Council President Stephen Silha (whose father founded the Silha Center in Minneapolis), Media Member Chuck Rehberg, Public Member Sandy Schoolfield, and Lucy Innes, the WNC’s administrative assistant, also attended. WNC Executive Director John Hamer welcomed the crowd and showed a DVD explaining the News Council’s operations.

Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles, Editorial Page Editor Doug Floyd, Attorney Duane Swinton and other top staff from the newspaper also attended.

In an email to the WNC after the event, attendee William McCrory, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, wrote: “We want to thank you and the Washington News Council for presenting one of the most powerful and practical discussions about ethics I’ve heard in a long time. Though the focus was the Spokesman Review’s methods and coverage, the underlying ethical questions and discussions relate to many areas of business and public administration. The five panelists had obviously been carefully selected to offer as many different perspectives as possible.  Moderator John Irby kept the panelists on topic and on time, and for the most part, the panelists were focused, concise, and complete in their answers. Questions and comments were courteous but to the point, and so were the answers.”

In the Feb. 9 edition of The Spokesman-Review, staff writer Jim Camden wrote: “The panel didn’t always agree on the lessons that journalists might take away from The Spokesman-Review’s 2005 investigation that found West had used his city computer to meet young men with whom he had sex, and offered some of them gifts or city positions.”

To read Camden’s full story, go to:

http://www.spokesmanreview.com/jimwest/story.asp?ID=020906_forum

Camden noted that Jane Kirtley of the Silha Center for Media Ethics, and Ted McGregor of The Inlander both criticized the newspaper’s use of a forensic computer expert who posed as a high-school student in a gay chat room and communicated directly with West.

Police sometimes use deception with suspects but “journalists should not be cops,” Kirtley said. McGregor added: “It’s a slippery slope.”

Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith vigorously defended the newspaper’s methods, arguing that the deception was a last resort to get “absolute, positive, irrefutable proof” that West was engaged in illegal activity with young people. Smith noted that the newspaper had followed the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code and the PoynterInstitute’s guidelines for reporting in such situations.

Whitworth Communication Professor Ginny Whitehouse defended the Spokesman-Review’s practices, saying:  “I don’t think there were alternative means” of getting the story on West and noting that local police were not exploring the allegations.

Former Mayor Jack Geraghty said the main lesson for public officials was that they couldnot expect to have a private life.

In closing remarks, Hamer noted that part of the Washington News Council’s mission is “to provide a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and performance.” He added: “The discussion we’ve had tonight is exactly what the Washington News Council is all about.”

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