At the Online News Association, the editor of a newspaper’s online site stood up and said passionately, almost tearfully, that she was tired of hearing others refer to themselves as “citizen journalists.” She declared, “I am a citizen, too.” I’ve heard that a few times and I have two replies: First, if you want the citizens to see you as citizens, then you need to be willing to see the citizens as journalists. Second, I ask: What does it mean to be a citizen? What is your role as a neighbor? What are your responsibilities as a member of the community?
The old rule, which I didn’t necessarily buy but just assumed was right, was that journalists should not get involved in their stories. Yet today, that sounds more like the prime directive for crew members of the Starship Enterprise than the ethic of journalists who are supposed to serve their communities. And it sounds like one more way that journalism has tried to separate itself from the public it serves and to set journalists apart from their neighbors.
So now see Jack Shafer scolding New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald for getting involved in the life of the main subject of his story about a boy’s descent into a world of porn and drugs. Shafer quotes the Times story:
In the days that followed, Justin agreed in discussions with this reporter to abandon the drugs and his pornography business. He cut himself off from his illicit life. He destroyed his cellphone, stopped using his online screen name and fled to a part of the country where no one would find him.
As he sobered up, Justin disclosed more of what he knew about the Webcam world; within a week, he revealed the names and locations of children who were being actively molested or exploited by adults with Webcam sites. After confirming his revelations, The Times urged him to give his information to prosecutors, and he agreed.
Justin contacted Steven M. Ryan, a former federal prosecutor and partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Washington. Mr. Ryan had learned of Justin’s story during an interview with The Times about a related legal question, and offered to represent him.
What extraordinary intervention! The analogies aren’t perfect, but imagine a Times reporter encountering an 18-year-old who had been thrust into the illicit drug business at 13 as a consequence of his neglectful family and unscrupulous dealers? Would he help the young man leave the drug trade and find him a lawyer at a Washington firm who is “a former federal prosecutor,” as Eichenwald did Berry? Not likely. Would a Times reporter extend similar assistance to an 18-year-old female prostitute? An 18-year-old fence? A seller of illegal guns? No way.
To the argument that Eichenwald deserves our praise for aiding the adult Berry, who has been victimized, I offer this counterargument: Hasn’t the Times put the next reporter assigned to the online pornography story into a nasty jam?
I might buy the precedent argument. And I certainly would agree that this could get messy. But get away from the world of prostitution, drugs, and crime and go to New Orleans, where reporters agonized over whether to help the people in need after Katrina. They were criticized no matter what they decided.
I think it is time to reexamine the old rules. If journalists are citizens, don’t they have the same responsibilities as other citizens? If you saw someone just pass by a neighbor in need, wouldn’t you think ill of that person? Would you suddenly excuse such apparent callousness if you found out that the not-so-good samaritan is a reporter? Should reporters live by different standards?
I, too, was taken aback by Eichenwald’s disclosure that he got involved in the life of this young man. But then my greater concern was that perhaps Eichenwald, too, exploited the boy, but for the sake of his story and his cause. Not sure where I come out there.
But I do think Eichenwald did the right thing helping if he could. And I especially think he did the right thing disclosing that. We need to return to being members of our communities, rather than would-be members of the power tribe. For if we don’t, other just plain people — yes, bloggers — will assume the authentic voice of speaking for citizens to power and championing the causes of victims. What do you think?