A daily newspaper published a fake story at the request of law enforcement officials, helping prosecute a man but also raising ethical red flags among journalists.
Editors at suburban Seattle’s Eastside Journal, now the King County Journal, said they cooperated with prosecutors and sheriff’s detectives who asked them to run a false article to catch convicted murderer Steven Sherer in a plot to burn down the home where his teenage son lives with the mother of his slain wife, the Seattle Times reported.
“Journalistically, we’ll probably take some heat for it, but we have a responsibility to the community, and that weighed heavily in our decision,” said Journal Editor Tom Wolfe.
The paper’s cooperation helped prosecutors file charges of solicitation to commit arson against Sherer on Wednesday.
However, Michael Parks, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, told the Times he thinks the Journal’s actions were unethical and irresponsible.
“It was a lie,” he said. “The newspaper deliberately told a falsehood, not just to the guy in the prison cell, but to all its readers.”
A former Los Angeles Times editor, Parks, asserted that a newspaper’s primary responsibility to its community is to tell the truth.
“There’s no room in a news report for a false, made-up story,” he said. To do so, “violates the canons of journalism.”
The Journal’s story, which ran March 23, 2002, covered a fire staged by the King County Sheriff’s office. It said police and fire officials “are investigating a fire” and quoted a fire department spokesman as saying, “it might have been deliberately set.”
The story also said, “Firefighters arrived at 8:35 a.m. … [and] the fire caused substantial damage.” The story concluded, “The house might have been targeted, but investigators would not give further details.”
Steven Sherer, convicted in June 2000, is serving a 60-year sentence in the Washington state penitentiary for murdering his wife, Jami Sherer. In December 2001, a prison informant told officials Sherer had recruited his 21-year-old cellmate to torch his mother-in-law’s house and kill its occupants, court records say, according to the Times. The fire was to be a test run, and if the cellmate succeeded, Sherer would hire him to kill the four children of the deputy prosecutor who tried his murder case.
When the cellmate was released from prison in February 2002, King County sheriff’s deputies convinced him to cooperate. He told officials Sherer demanded proof of the arson — in the form of a newspaper article — before Sherer would reveal where he had hidden $17,000 in jewelry that was to be payment for the crime.
At that point, prosecutors and sheriff’s detectives asked the Journal for help.
“The King County Sheriff’s office staged this fire … and requested that the King County Journal put in a blurb that there was a fire there and it seemed suspicious — and it was then mailed to Sherer,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Christina Bartlett said Thursday.
Barlett argued that Sherer previously had tried to hire a hit man to kill his son and mother-in-law, and this latest plot “was an exceptional case that we felt called for exceptional techniques.”
“We very much appreciate the King County Journal for printing [the story] for us,” she said.
The Journal editor, Wolfe, said the decision to help police is “an exceptional thing for a newspaper” to do.
“The targets identified in the investigation were the children of a prosecutor, his own son and the mother of the wife he killed,” he said. “Right there, you have a pretty exceptional situation.”
Wolfe said he has received letters of support from readers, though he agreed the paper’s credibility could be hurt, the Times reported.
Journalism ethics instructor Aly Colon, maintained that printing a bogus story undermines “the foundation of trust a newspaper has with its readers.”
“While there are times when things might appear to be [for] a greater good,” any time a newspaper engages in deception, “you eat away at any integrity you may have,” said Colon, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“I can see them wrestling with the issue,” he said of Journal editors. “But they should have wrestled it to the ground and pinned this thing. To intentionally mislead cripples credibility.”
A local resident of the neighborhood where the arson was staged said, however, he saw no problem with the decision.
“I think at times, like a time like that, it’s justified and hopefully successful in getting more evidence for the case,” said Ken Seal, a member of the East Bellevue, Wash., Community Council, who added he believed media cooperation with law enforcement is not unprecedented.