Editor column: West Valley City mayor harmed his city, Deseret News readers
Mike Winder, mayor of West Valley City, didn't like what he read about his city in the Deseret News. So he did something about it.
Winder became Richard Burwash, citizen journalist. Under the Burwash byline, Winder submitted news stories he thought would balance the way West Valley is perceived by that newspaper's readers. He felt the Deseret News' coverage was too focused on crime in the city.
The Deseret News took the Burwash copy. After all, it fits into the newspaper's year-old strategy of using citizen-submitted news stories to replace content once produced by a large, and now much smaller, staff of reporters. Last week, Winder came clean about his alias, admitting it wasn't the best idea he's ever had, but defending his motive for improving the image of his city.
So much is troubling about all this that it is hard to know where to begin.
Let's start with the mayor.
When he took office, Winder committed to doing the public's business. That requires honesty, integrity, accountability transparency.
Submitting "news" under a false name, and even going so far as to quote yourself well, there's one word for it: lying.
As for the newspaper, Deseret News managers suggest Winder's success in getting published is an aberration, that he exerted Herculean effort to circumvent the "checks and balances" that ensure integrity in the paper's content. This is the only problem they have ever had, they say.
The Deseret News isn't the only newsroom to embark on a citizen-journalism model to make up for smaller reporting staffs. The benefits are obvious: The content is cheap.
But the costs can be enormous.
Giving people a pipeline to your news pages and your website labeling it as "news" and treating it just like the stories produced by your reporters is an invitation for abuse. People have vested interests in getting information out. Usually it is not evil; it's human nature. You want to give a plug to your brother-in-law's new business, to your child's school, to your own enterprise.
More importantly, opening the gates to everyone diminishes journalism. There is no room for conflicts of interest in news stories. One of the golden rules for reporters and editors: Never touch a story that directly affects you or your family. Don't just avoid conflict of interest, avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
Good journalism requires balance, perspective and context. Good journalism includes many points of view. Good journalism is not easy. It is not something that anybody and everybody can do.
In our newsroom, the most common question an editor asks a reporter is, "Who else do we need to talk to for your story?"
News reporting is about following a lead, untangling the facts and getting to the heart of an issue. It takes skill, experience, training, investigative instincts, hard work and time. It's about not accepting the easy explanation, but digging until the true picture emerges. It's about including and balancing differing perspectives. Newsrooms that produce good work have running conversations about ethics and fairness.
If Mike Winder wants to become a reporter, he should go back to college and take journalism classes. In Journalism 101, he will learn that what he did was a disservice to newspaper readers and the citizens of his city.
Terry Orme is a managing editor at The Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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