There is a section within the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics that tells us: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decision to the public.”
In keeping with the spirit of that guideline, we would like to explain our reporting decisions regarding the Washougal Mayor Sean Guard articles that have appeared in this newspaper and on our website since May.
As the story of the mayor’s possibly criminal behavior continues to unfold, we have picked up on a few of our readers’ most common questions, including: Why would we publicize something so personal and why aren’t we digging deeper into the sources who first brought this story to our attention — sources many say are simply political opponents of the mayor who want to see him booted out of office?
This editorial strives to answer those questions.
When we first heard rumblings about lurid messages linked to the mayor, we were interested but reserved. Why were we interested? Well, to begin with, one of the most important roles journalists play in a democracy is the watchdog role. It is our job to shed light on public officials who are acting in corrupt, immoral or illegal ways.
“Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable,” the Code of Ethics states. “Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.”
Keeping an eye on government officials is a huge part of our job. So when we heard that a public official — a mayor who draws a salary of $2,225 a month from taxpayer funds — might be engaged in immoral and possibly illegal behavior, we had a duty to look into it.
Still, even watchdogs must be suspect when approaching a story like this one. And that’s because another part of the Code guides us to “consider sources’ motives.”
The source who came to us in May was a man named Glenn Kincaid. He had already posted — publicly and online — extremely graphic sexual messages he claimed were from the mayor. We saw the posts but were wary of Kincaid as a source. Why? Well, for starters, Kincaid openly admitted that, aside from wanting to help his friend (the woman involved in this case), he also wanted to take the mayor, whom he considered a “RINO” or Republican in Name Only, down a few notches.
We told Kincaid that we would listen to his story, but that we would not publish lurid messages that may or may not be from the mayor’s phone and/or Facebook account. He accused us of being beholden to the mayor. Our editor, who at that point had been with The Post-Record for just a few weeks, informed Kincaid that she didn’t even know the mayor and had, in fact, only met him once and had never spoken more than a few words to him. He told her he didn’t believe her because everyone who lives out here knows the Guard family. She informed him that she lives in Portland and commutes to The Post-Record each day. He responded, “Oh. So you’re one of THOSE people.” Needless to say, we never considered Kincaid a very trustworthy source for information. And we have since published his statements regarding his own political motivations in more than one article.
However, when we discovered that a citizen had gone to the Washougal Police Department and filed what were then being called harassment allegations against the mayor, it was our duty to report the story. When the police department sent the case to WSP, it was, again, our duty to report this. Filing a public records request for the WSP investigative report and then turning that information over to the public? Also part of our job.
Remember: One of our main roles is to report on the goings on of public officials and to hold them accountable for their actions. Guard had already been arrested and punished for a crime once. We wanted to stay on top of this story and let the public in Washougal, who depend on their mayor to be that city’s ambassador and leader, know exactly what was happening.
As this story continues to unfold, we will always try to hold true to the guidelines set forth in the SPJ Code of Ethics and bring the public information that sheds light on the actions of their political officials.
Writing about this kind of behavior is not fun or pleasant. And it’s definitely not “fake news” or a political witchhunt. It is simply our duty as watchdog journalists.