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Legal, ethical questions raised after WVC mayor exposes pseudonym

By Richard Piatt  |  Posted Nov 11th, 2011 @ 6:21pm


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SALT LAKE CITY -- After West Valley City Mayor Mike Winder admitted to creating a false identity to write news articles about his city, his actions are raising ethical questions, including whether media outlets should also be held accountable.

It's an important question, because journalists write stories differently than a public relations or advertising agency does. As journalists, we work to write without bias and strive for balance and accuracy above all.

This issue really is about trust, something media outlets -- like KSL and the Deseret News -- take very seriously and are accountable for.

Winder says he was frustrated that his city, West Valley, wasn't getting enough positive press in the Deseret News.

"I was just trying to bring balance to the news coverage," he said.

So, using the name Richard Burwash, he wrote articles himself, submitting many to Deseret Connect, a freelance contributor network, that allows freelance writers a chance to get their work published to its media partners, including ksl.com.


The blame I would place on Deseret Connect doesn't mitigate the fact that Mike did lie, and he did misrepresent himself. And that's a question for the voters of West Valley City.

–Kim Zarkin, Westminster College


Winder also wrote about UTOPIA, a former client from his days at the Summit Group, marketing PR company.

Winder says when he found out Deseret Connect doesn't allow pseudonyms, he confessed.

"Deseret Connect did not want pen names, and so I was wrong," he said. "As soon as I found out they didn't, I stopped and opened an account in my own name."

But in order to get as far as he did, Deseret Connect director Matt Sanders says Winder created a false profile, email, photo, phone number and Facebook account. That circumvented the steps the company has in place to verify contributors' identities.

"The checklist is extensive, and the hoops that the mayor chose to go through were remarkable as he continued that persona," said Deseret Connect Director Matt Sanders.

Legally, experts say Winder did nothing wrong. But ethically, Westminster journalism professor Kimberly Zarkin says both Winder and Deseret Connect fell short.

Online Poll

Do you think Deseret Connect should be held accountable?
1. Yes, it is responsible for the material it publishes
2. No, it did not do anything wrong
3. No, but it should be more careful in the future
4. Undecided
Do you think Deseret Connect should be held accountable?
1. Yes, it is responsible for the material it publishes
2. No, it did not do anything wrong
3. No, but it should be more careful in the future
4. Undecided

"The Deseret News, by publishing those articles, abdicated their journalistic responsibility," she told KSL. "The blame I would place on Deseret Connect doesn't mitigate the fact that Mike did lie, and he did misrepresent himself. And that's a question for the voters of West Valley City."

Zarkin says Americans are losing trust in journalists, and that's all we really have.

"Our trust levels, as journalists, are ranked somewhere in the neighborhood of used car salesmen," she said. "Journalists have an obligation to rebuild that trust, and this isn't going to help."

Zarkin says that Deseret Connect must tighten its standards to keep from being duped, adding that it's never too late to show readers that it won't happen again.

Politically, it's not known if Winder will face any fallout from his confession. But Democrats blasted him in a release, calling his "lack of good sense and judgment mindboggling."

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Story written by Richard Piatt with contributions from Peter Samore.

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