The words in the title have been used-accurately-to describe the Washington News Council's (WNC) recent publication, Reporting on Yourself: An independent analysis of The Spokesman-Review's coverage of and role in the Spokane River Park Square redevelopment project. It is indeed a unique case study in media ethics.
The downtown mall project's developer was the Cowles Company-which also owns and publishes The Spokesman-Review. That dual role led to widespread criticism of the newspaper's performance and ethics over more than a decade. Even many of the paper's reporters and editors expressed concern about the coverage, and some left for other jobs.
The Washington News Council's report-done at the personal request of Spokesman-Review Editor Steven A. Smith-analyzed the paper's coverage over a 10-year period. Our copyrighted report-see box on how to get a copy-was recently released. We interviewed most of the key players, including the publisher, the company president, the former editor, and current or former editors and reporters. We offered a set of strong findings and made several clear recommendations for changes at the newspaper. Our report is neither a "whitewash" nor a "witch hunt," as some had feared it would be, but it is definitely a candid, unsparing critique.
The WNC (www.wanewscouncil.org ) insisted on having complete autonomy to review the coverage and express our opinion. To his credit, Smith agreed in advance to provide access to current newsroom employees, to open records and files, and to encourage former employees to cooperate. He also agreed to post our entire report-unedited except for fact-checking-on the paper's Web site, and to publish the entire text in a Sunday edition of the paper.
No newspaper has ever asked for such a comprehensive outside review, and no news council has ever produced such a report. It's one of a kind. Our report is already being used in media ethics classes in journalism schools, and multiple copies are being requested by journalism teachers nationwide.
The Washington News Council concluded that:
The Spokesman-Review did not investigate thoroughly in a timely manner and report promptly and forthrightly the financial structure of River Park Square.
The newspaper suppressed financial information of importance to decision-makers and the public at large, but potentially unfavorable to the developers.
Ownership's involvement in news stories it deemed sensitive was inappropriate.
A news editor overseeing the reporting of a controversial issue involving the owners of the newspaper advocated a particular outcome, which he should not have done.
The newspaper suffered from the potential for self-censorship of the news product by reporters and editors.
The same attorney simultaneously-and inappropriately-represented both the Cowles family in its business dealings and the newsroom in its freedom of information and similar matters, and influenced the decisions of both.
When the report was completed, true to Smith's word, it was posted on the Spokesman-Review's Web site (www.spokesmanreview.com) and also printed in the May 6, 2007, edition of the paper. It occupied three full pages.
In a separate column that ran that day, Smith wrote: "We accept the findings. And we sincerely apologize for not adequately living up to our journalistic standards." In a column that ran next to Smith's, Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles wrote: "While I reject substantially all of the allegations of influence collected in the News Council's report, I do respect the direction of its recommendations."
Cowles said the report presented "one view of our coverage of River Park Square and there are certainly many others." He said that former Spokesman-Review Editor Chris Peck (now editor of The Commercial-Appeal in Memphis, Tennessee) and his team "faced a very complex and controversial story." He said they "did their best" but made "a few tough calls that in hindsight they might reconsider."
The following Sunday, on May 13, Smith ran a column by Peck that defended the newspaper's coverage and his performance. But on the same page, Smith wrote a second column responding in detail to the WNC's recommendations-and accepting most of them.
The Editor's Response
In response to the WNC report, Smith agreed to:
Make certain there is an "independent, outside editor to assure appropriate, aggressive, fair and balanced reporting" on Cowles Company matters.
Enforce the current practice of not allowing prior review by the owners of "all stories involving the Cowles family and their diverse interests."
Step down from The Spokesman-Review's editorial board to eliminate any perception "that news decisions are influenced by editorial positions."
Update the newspaper's written code of ethics and "present a draft to the community.for public comment and review."
Use the newspaper's attorney for "media law issues involving the newsroom" but not for any Cowles Company business matters, which the report called a conflict of interest.
Smith also invited continued public comments through phone calls, e-mails or on the paper's blogs. The Spokesman-Review actually does more than most American newspapers to involve the public, including linking to many local bloggers, inviting citizens to sit in on daily news meetings, and Webcasting those meetings. Smith calls it the "Transparent Newsroom."
Background of Report
After Smith became editor of The Spokesman-Review in 2002, he pledged publicly that he would seek an "outside audit" of the paper's coverage of River Park Square. In 2005, Smith approached the WNC and asked us to consider taking on the project. We saw it as a difficult and daunting task, but decided it was worth exploring.
Smith and I discussed the project at length in several meetings, phone calls and e-mail exchanges. WNC board members Chuck Rehberg, a retired associate editor of the Spokesman-Review, and John Irby, then a journalism professor at the Murrow School at Washington State University, took part in the discussions.
I invited Smith to come to Seattle on Feb. 4, 2006, to make a formal request to the full News Council at our annual board meeting. He spent more than an hour with our 20-member board, composed of both "public" and "journalist" members. They asked numerous questions about access, openness, independence, cost and other matters.
After Smith left, the board discussed his request at length and then voted unanimously to undertake the project on the conditions that: a) we would have full access to the Spokesman-Review's staff and files, b) we could "let the chips fall where they may," and c) the newspaper would publish the full report unedited. Smith agreed to all these conditions.
An important early task was to draft a "memorandum of understanding" between the Washington News Council and the Spokesman-Review to clearly define the scope and parameters of the project. That effort took several months of discussion and document exchanges. A final agreement, termed the "engagement letter," was signed by both sides in August 2006.
In it, the WNC agreed to "form an opinion whether the River Park Square coverage was fair, accurate, balanced, complete and consistent with the generally held ethical standards of newspaper journalism." We also pledged to "make recommendations we believe will improve The Spokesman-Review's coverage of events involving its owners and where a potential conflict of interest exists."
The WNC is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance. We provide a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in examining media ethics and accountability. Our organization was founded in 1998.
The WNC has an all-volunteer board-half of them current or retired journalists, and half from other professions. I am the full-time executive director, with a part-time executive assistant. We are an independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with a tight budget and limited staff resources. We had never done a project of this scope, nor had any other news council anywhere in the world. No newspaper anywhere had ever invited such thorough outside scrutiny of so many years of coverage, while promising such total autonomy and access for the reviewing team.
Cost of the project was a major consideration. Smith pledged that the newspaper would help underwrite the expense. He initially offered $10,000, but raised that to $15,000 at our request. However, the WNC's board unanimously agreed that the Spokesman-Review should not be the sole funder of the project, and voted to match Smith's contribution from other sources. We designated $5,000 from an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation grant, with their approval, and added $10,000 from our operating budget. The WNC is funded by a wide range of individuals, foundations, corporations, associations and media organizations, plus revenues from our annual Gridiron West Dinner. (For a full list of donors, see our Web site, http://www.wanewscouncil.org.)
When the WNC board approved the project, we asked Cliff Rowe, a board member emeritus, to lead the project team. Rowe is a professor of journalism at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma and former chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics committee. Several other board members, both media and public, agreed to join the team. (For a full list, see our report.) A few said they would recuse themselves from any involvement because of personal or professional connections to Smith and/or The Spokesman-Review.
The team decided to hire an outside freelance reporter to do the primary research and conduct interviews, then draft a report under WNC oversight. We hired Bill Richards, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, who now lives in the Seattle area. He began work in the late summer of 2006. His assignment was to draft a narrative and analysis section, and the project team would take responsibility for findings and recommendations. The report took several months to complete. Audio transcripts of interviews that Richards conducted are available online. Also available for viewing are Webcasts of two newsroom meetings at The Spokesman-Review where Smith discussed the report with his staff.
After the report was published, we received numerous comments and feedback from various observers all over the country. One of the most powerful came from Karen Dorn Steele, a longtime, award-winning, investigative reporter for The Spokesman-Review who was not directly involved in the River Park Square coverage. She told the News Council:
We needed somebody from the outside to review our coverage. I thought it just set the record straight. It was very well done. There is now editorial independence in the newsroom from the publisher. That principle has been strengthened by this outside review.
To order a copy of the full report, call 206.262.9793. Single copies are $15 each ($12 each for 6-20 copies; $10 each for 21 or more copies). Make checks payable to Washington News Council, P.O. Box 3672, Seattle WA 98124-3672. You may also order copies online, using Visa or MasterCard, at the "Click&Pledge" page on the WNC Web site, http://www.wanewscouncil.org