River Park Square (RPS) is a major downtown Spokane mall whose developer was the Cowles Co. - which also owns and publishes The Spokesman-Review. That dual role led to widespread criticism of the newspaper's coverage of the project.
Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith in early 2006 asked the Washington News Council to conduct an independent "outside audit" of the newspaper's performance over more than a decade. The council had complete autonomy to review the coverage and make recommendations.The result is Reporting on Yourself: An Independent Analysis of The Spokesman-Review's Coverage of and Role in the Spokane River Park Square Redevelopment Project. The author is Bill Richards, a seasoned journalist and Seattle-area resident whose work for the Washington News Council on this was unrelated to his contributions to Crosscut, and the leader of the effort was Pacific Lutheran University journalism professor Clifford G. Rowe. The findings of the investigation (178K PDF) are not flattering:
- "The newspaper did not investigate thoroughly in a timely manner and report promptly and forthrightly the financial structure of RPS."
- "The newspaper suppressed financial information of importance to decision-makers and the public at-large, but potentially unfavorable to 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 should not advocate a particular outcome."
- "The Spokesman-Review suffers from the potential for self-censorship of the news product by reporters and editors."
- "The same attorney simultaneously influenced decisions on related business and newsroom matters."
In an accompanying column on these pages, Publisher Stacey Cowles says he rejects the report's findings of interference, direct or indirect. I can appreciate his viewpoint, though we come at the situation from different perspectives. Furthermore, I appreciate the freedom he extends me to draw differing conclusions. So,in the newsroom, we accept the findings. And we sincerely apologize for not adequately living up to our journalistic standards.Smith correctly states that "in the world of journalism ethics, perception is as important as reality." Sort of agreeing, Cowles writes: "The moral for me is, it is not enough to operate a newsroom independent of its owners; our newspaper must always take extra steps to help our audience understand that this is indeed the case."
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