Mayor should use resources, avoid deceiving public

Mike Winder, the mayor of West Valley City, Utah, had a problem: His city was appearing too often in local newspapers’ crime reports and not enough in positive news stories. Concerned by his community’s perceived negative reputation, the mayor decided to do something about it.

Using a fake name, fake address, and someone else’s photo, Winder set up a Facebook profile and Gmail account last year posing as freelance writer Richard Burwash. He used the persona to have more than a dozen articles on West Valley City published in Utah print media, including some pieces in which he quoted himself as mayor under the Burwash identity. Winder wrote articles, took photos, spoke with editors, and provided documents supporting one of his articles — all as Burwash. The duplicity continued for eight months, until Winder realized that the Deseret News, a paper in which he had published three articles, had a no-pseudonym policy.

Pseudonyms aside, we were taken aback by Winder’s voluntary disregard for conflict of interest rules, the policies that prevent reporters with vested interests in a group or event from covering it in a newspaper. Avoiding conflicts of interest is a major tenet of journalism and is a key mechanism in ensuring fair, objective news coverage. We have a hard time understanding someone who would eagerly violate one of the field’s central precepts and yet be conscience-stricken by unauthorized use of a pen name.

We wonder why Winder thought it necessary to take on this added burden of deception and subterfuge when he could have simply used some of his many resources to improve news coverage. As the field of journalism continues moving away from entrenched print newspapers toward community-sourced and personal reporting, clear communication of basic journalistic ethics will be essential for maintaining an independent and honest press.

In Winder’s case, however, the mayor’s actions reveal more than a good-faith effort to give West Valley City “a fair shake” in the media, as he said last week in a Deseret News article. By creating a fake persona, Winder made it obvious that he knew his news reports would have been less likely to be published if their true source had been known. As mayor of Utah’s second most populous city, Winder had numerous methods at his disposal for promoting his town. He could have called press conferences, distributed press releases to newspapers, or started an official city blog. In the end, he got the publicity he wanted, but at the cost of undermining some of the trust placed in him.