Are we not citizens?

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.

Shafer disapproves:

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?

  • Seems to me that, as long as you’re disclosing what you’re doing, then there’s a fair amount of leeway to *report* on what’s going on — being a reporter and all.

    Less high falutin’ than “Journalist”, but perhaps that’s what we’re looking for here — reporting.

    In the world that’s being built here, the great thing is — you can do whatever you’d like, and call it whatever you want. You may have to defend yourself — but since there’s no French Academy here on the web, we can all run down the field with our terminology, products and approaches — and the market will decide what wins.

    If the New York Times wants to help out the subject of one of their stories (or bail out one of their reporters, or buy or hire cranky old bloggers), then let the buyers or readers or whomever to decide if that works for them. Fox news clearly seems to be working out for Rupert, and Jack can defend those who prefer their Journalism to be non secular.

    These issues will be decided by Adam Smith, not Joseph Pulitzer

  • I was waiting for you to comment on the NYT piece, Jeff, as it was a huge story.

    I wasn’t surprised by Jack Shafer’s response to it all, given that he almost always comes out as the contrarian on things. I do think he raises some good points about precedent, but I also doubt that the Times stumbles across such stories every day. This story was much different than your average online porn story. Indeed, it got people sent to jail.

    My attitude is of course Eichenwald needs to help the kid out. He’s a person and a decent human being before he is a journalist. Journalists need to be humans. One could argue that Eichenwald “exploited” the boy himself. But I wouldn’t look at it that way. The boy is now trying to spread the word about the perils of such a “career” and this story is a great launch pad for him to do that.

  • Nancy/Ca

    Jeff, have you read in the LAtimes a beautifully written,ongoing story by Steve Lopez re. a mentally ill homeless man who was a world class musician studying at Juilliard when he first became ill? It’s a fine example of what you are writing about re. if journalists should get involved or not. Steve Lopez slowly but surely gets involved but you find yourself completely drawn into it. I would find myself with a lump in my throat because of the kindness shown by Steve and other people who become involved in Nathanial’s story.

  • richard mcenroe

    If journalists want to be considered as citizens, perhaps more of them should demonstrate, not even civic virtue, but some semblance of civic character at all.

    I have had first hand experience of journalists who took advantage of their subjects or went through wild contortions of question, answer and “editing” to “get” the story they already had in mind when they showed up, regardless of the facts on the ground. They were going to tell us what our story was, regardless of what we were actually experiencing.

    If journalists want to acknowledge a sense of community with us, and if they want us to acknowledge it, they should consider abandoning their affectation of godlike perspective, standing aside from the community as they observe it with irrefutable insight. We need fewer Mike Wallaces pompously declaring they would let American troops be ambushed in the name of professional objectivity and more editors who might think the story their embedded reporters on the scene are telling them might be more representative of the truth than the pronunciations of academics and lobbyists they meet at the best seminars and restaurants, whatever the subject.

  • Sikora

    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?

    In an online media forum last year I suggested that the future of journalism would be built on “who, what, when, where, how and why”. Another participant countered that being first was imperative. The marketplace, you know?

    The 2005 Gallup Poll rating the “honesty and ethical standards” of 21 professions ranked journalists down at number 10. I think Kurt Eichenwald and his editor know why.

    Rules of style, layout, image size and placement are evolving with the opportunities of new media. Why not the rules of reporting? Haven’t many of them already been rendered quaint?

    I’m not sure where citizen journalism will take us, but if the objective is an informed citizenry, Joseph Pulitzer will need to be as relevant as Adam Smith.

  • I thought Eichenwald did the right thing, and was totally transparent about it. We’re left to our own conclusions, but the boy in the story got some help.

  • Vulgorilla

    When the “journalist” gets involved with their story, they’re no longer reporting the news, they’re actually creating/influencing it. That’s not what I’m interested in reading/hearing about. It’s like Heisenberg’ uncertainty principle – you change the very thing you’re trying to measure by measuring it. Why can’t we just have the reporting of news, as accurately and as objectively as is humanly possible? That’s all I want…but it seems that’s become the impossible dream. These “journalists” aren’t reporters anymore … They’re no different that Grimm or Aesop … just story tellers who make it up as they go. If it doesn’t fit their political agenda, then they just omit it, or change it on the fly. In the past, no one would ever know … today it makes all MSM reported news suspect. One wonders how many past events were influenced by the the intentionally false reporting of the news by the MSM with the intent of actually influencing future events. I now pay no attention to them whatsoever – they just shovel out DNC propaganda.

  • This new blog (above) has some observations on the kiddie porn issue. Plus the exchange between author and someone discussing sexual rights of children is worthwhile.

  • sorry, didn’t realize website wouldn’t be in text….. check it out on kiddie porn issue plus comments

  • Jane

    Didn’t the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof buy underage Thai prostitutes from brothels and return them to their homes?

    I don’t have an issue with journalist intervening.

  • I think the key is to participate as a human when others are in need, and to disclose, but to stay out of the fray in partisan events. This is a hard line to draw, because our society is so polarized politically.

  • EverKarl

    If some journalist declared to me that she “is a citizen, too.” I would reply that of course she is — and as such must surely concede that all citizens should have the same right to freely speak and publish their opinions and observations, without granting special privileges to those who are paid for exercising those rights. If people like her were not so dismissive of her fellow citizens, we could all be called reporters while in the act of reporting and there would be no need for a term like “citizen journalist.”

    As for the NYT/Slate part of the post, the root of the matter is the j-school elevation of objectivity over other competing values. The issue is also below the surface of the journalist’s emotional response that she is also a citizen. The debate between Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace about warning US troops of an ambush is a classic example of the occasional tension between objectivity and citizenship. Perhaps the journalists who get emotional over the term “citizen journalist” are feeling a little guilty over a professional ethos that elevates objectivity (or more typically the illusion thereof) over other values.

  • Terry

    I think it’s short-sighted and limiting to use ‘citizen’ as purely an adjective to describe who is reporting the news (citizen journalism), instead of on whose behalf the news is reported. Citizens create a democracy and accurate reporting is essential to its functioning properly. Journalism exists for the benefit of citizens to be informed and thus govern. It’s a false dichotomy to keep agruing over who’s entitled to report news.

  • Mitchel

    I have a huge problem with this article because my brother is the supposed monster at the end of the story. I have met Justin only once, last summer, and my opinion of him then was that he was secretive, little weasel being eaten by addiction. Mr. Eichenwald portrays Justin as this poor, put-upon angel tant just needed to be saved. The reality was that Justin was the designer of the webcam site, he was the mastermind of the credit card scheme, and he was the “talent scout” of the operation. Mr. Eichenwald mentions children in the house at the end of the article (which reads like a bad Max Bolan climax) but doesn’t mention that the kids were never molested by my brother and were never questioned by the FBI. The childern actually went to the FBI to give statements stating that Justin, not my brother, had been trying to get them to be part of his website. Of course, Eichenwald doesn’t write any of this because it disturbs the story he wants to write. Not the story that reall is.

  • Ultimately, journalism is an art, not a scientific endeavor that shouldn’t taint the petri dish.

    If a journalist’s tact is to get involved in the story and affect its outcome – and one reports that as part of the story – then what is the issue? It’s all there for consumption, review, and it provides visibility/transparancy. It’s a different style of journalism, but who says there is only way to report to the world?

    Besides, I think its mildly disturbing to think that being a journalist is a pre-requisit for losing one’s humanity in the name of the “story”.



  • John Stark

    Some of us in this business have been trying, for years, to AVOID being some kind of priesthood, some kind of privileged class of first-amendment nobility. Some of us have always wanted to be of the people, by the people and for the people.
    Thirty years ago I had a city editor in El Paso, Texas who forbade all his reporters from parking in the free “press zone” outside city hall.
    As for the NYT reporter who intervened on behalf of the young man he was writing about: I think we often get in trouble when we think in terms of “journalism ethics” as something distinct from “ethics.” There is no such thing as “journalism ethics” or “trucking ethics” or “farming ethics.” There’s just ETHICS. Ethical decision are often difficult. Ethical objectives can sometimes conflict. Ethical decisions are going to be questioned by people who have different ethics.
    My ethics say, if you can help a person in danger, you’d better do it.

  • FYJ

    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?

    The difficulty lies in defining what constitutes “need” and when the requirement to be a good Samaritan kicks in. What Eichenwald did makes me a little uncomfortable, but I can see the obvious importance of halting what he believed to be the ongoing victimization of children. You can give him leeway there, even by the most rigid standards of traditional journalism.

    But if we try to generalize from that by saying that people who write about the world have an obligation to try to solve the problems they encounter, I think we run into problems. Will journalists have an obligation to report would-be whistleblowers to the authorities? Tell the cops when they have interviews scheduled with gang kingpins and offer to wear wires? Testify at hearings about changes to local zoning regulations based on what their consciences tell them is the right thing based on their interviews and research? How do you decide when you have an obligation to act and when you only have an obligation to report?

    The idea is that staying as neutral as possible and striving to influence events in no other way than by recounting them as faithfully as possible serves a higher purpose: drawing into the public domain the maximum possible information to help your fellow citizens make decisions about their lives and how they’re governed. Once you start taking sides, you’re serving a different and less noble purpose.

    Obviously far too few journalists (“professional” and “citizen” alike) actually achieve that goal. Far too many people who call themselves journalists don’t even have that goal in mind when they get to work in the morning. But the fact a standard is often not met doesn’t mean it’s a bad standard.

  • MSMhacker

    I’ve been thinking about this objectivity mess for a long time – the entire 30 years I’ve been employed as a daily journalist – and I have concluded that it is just a mess.

    Nobody is objective. We in journalism pretend to be objective simply to reduce the likelihood that we and our publishers will be sued.

    In the name of objectivity, my employer has usurped my rights as a citizen. I am forbidden from working for any candidate for public office regardless of whether I write or have any influence over stories about that candidate.

    I am forbidden to be a candidate for public office.

    I am forbidden to participate in any public protest regardless of the issue.

    If I do any of these things, I will be fired. Since there is virtually no competing media in my area and since those that exist all have the same rules, I could not find a similar job. I not only will be evicted from my profession but also from my home for exercising what almost everyone acknowledges are the rights of every citizen.

    If you look back at what the press was when the First Amendment was written, you won’t find objectivity. You will find invective.

    The founding fathers didn’t write the First Amendment to protect a homogenized, neutral press that does he said/she said transcribing in order to look fair regardless of the merits of the arguments. The wrote it to protect a press that was as radical as they were and that, likely as not, quite often called for their heads on a platter.

    What we have now is a corporate corruption of the press and I don’t like it. I don’t like giving up my rights as a citizen on pain of economic death.

    What we have now is not a journalistic elite for the most part. What we have is a bunch of people who believe that, if they do their jobs well enough, they can get enough truth into the newspaper to make a difference, and they are willing to give up their rights as citizens to try.

    Put that in your pipe and smoke it next time you so easily dismiss the MSM as a bunch of hacks.

  • Mitchel

    They are a bunch of hacks. This story was completely constructed like the WMD story from the New York Times. I know the story from my brother’s perspective and Justin is spinning himself a book and movie deal. He was on the Today Show yesterday and on CNN last night. Eichenwald just wrote a story that sounded good. He never interviewd my brother (Greg Mitchel). He doesn’t mention that there is 3 year old warrant for Justin’s arrest in Canada. He just spun a story about redemption because it looked good.

    The real question of ethics here is should a reporter write a story from the facts or cherry pick (from the facts) so he can write a good story. My letters to the New York Times have not been responded to and, even here, everyone keeps talking about Eichenwald like he is some good samaritain.

    He isn’t. He didn’t save a child from the evils of the Internet. Justin is 19, an adult. He has been making money off this business for 6 years. Yet, Eichenwald has decided to make him a hero and everything that might have contradicted this article, he ignores.

    And I see a whol bunch of journalists patting themselves on the back because Eichenwald won one for the team. The MSM is a bunch of hacks and this story proves what we have known for a long time. My brother read this story from his prison cell and cried. He was destroyed because he felt Justin really cared for him. He didn’t get that Justin was using him as a fall guy for his scheme to get rich and get out of the business with a “get out of jail freel” card. Eichenwald, Jason Blair, and Judith Miller should go bowling together. Does anyone at the New York Times write news anymore or is it all Hollywood spec scripting?

  • Well, if we were good citizen journalists with objectivity, wouldn’t someone take up Mr. Mitchel’s comments and see if what he says has any truth? Although, I might recommend that Mr. Mitchel be careful what he writes in public domain since I just read that statements from a young man that he wrote on his blog contributed to his conviction for manslaughter. And, of course, there was the secret blog of the Idaho guy that kidnapped the little girl after murdering her family.

    Just a thought, though in no way wanting to limit his comments from fear, I think it would be prudent to exercise caution and work through his brother’s attorney.

    on the subject at hand, I am reminded of the story of an international photojournalist who had been to many war torn areas and other terrible areas of famine and disease, had wrote about photographing a dying child and doing nothing to help because he was supposed to stay outside the story. I believe he killed himself later.

  • Wasn’t there a well-known television anchor who said he would *not* inform American troops of an impending ambush, if doing so would interfere with his story? Is such an individual really behaving as a “citizen” in any meaningful sense of the word?

    And remember the journalists who deliberately skewed their reporting from Iraq in order to stay on Saddam Hussein’s good side. See my post Journalism’s Nuremberg.

  • Dexter Westbrook

    Look for a Kurt Eichenwald book/movie consultant deal as well.

    The underlying motive for all of this is Kurt Eichenwald’s economic gain. Bet on it.

    Why do you think the NYT held the story about National Security Agency monitoring of overseas calls? It was trying to goose sales of a reporter’s book.