The journalist’s responsibility as a citizen

When I used to call bloggers et al “citizen journalists,” many professional journalists objected: “We’re citizens, too.” Absolutely, you are, and that raises questions about your responsibility as citizens. Consider these three illustrations involving The New York Times:

Sunday’s Times carries a most eloquent essay by Michael Wines on covering the world’s poorest and sometimes intervening to help them.

How to respond to it is a moral dilemma that lurks in the background of many interviews. Reputable journalists are indoctrinated with the notion that they are observers — that their job is to tell a story, not to influence it. So what to do when an anguished girl tells a compelling story about her young brother, lying emaciated on a reed mat, dying for lack of money to by anti-AIDS drugs? Is it moral to take the story and leave when a comparatively small gift of money would keep him alive? If morality compels a gift, what about the dying mother in the hut next door who missed out on an interview by pure chance? Or the three huts down the dirt path where, a nurse says, residents are dying for lack of drugs? Why are they less deserving?

In reputable journalism, paying for information is a cardinal sin, the notion being that a source who will talk only for money is likely to say anything to earn his payment. So what to do when a penniless father asks why he should open his life free to an outsider when he needs money for food? How to react to the headmistress who says that white people come to her school only to satisfy their own needs, and refuses to talk without a contribution toward new classrooms? Is that so different from interviewing a Washington political consultant over a restaurant lunch on my expense account?

If it is, which is more ethical?

The same question was raised during Katrina, as journalists saw people in need and had to help. I think it is insane to argue that as journalists, they should not act. As citizens of the world, as neighbors, as compassionate people, the canons of their profession should not stop them. At the same time, though, as Wines points out, you can’t help everyone — and sometimes your reporting will bring help.

Now hear Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald on On the Media this week talking about turning child porn sites he finds in the course of his reporting over to the authorities. Last year, in a much-discussed case, Eichenwald, convinced one of his youthful subjects to testify against the pornographers. Now, in a new series, he reveals, with admirable transparency, that he turned in sites because it is the law:

Covering this story raised legal issues. United States law makes it a crime to purchase, download or view child pornography, unless the images are promptly reported to authorities and no images are copied or retained. The Times complied with the law, disclosing what it found to appropriate authorities.

Last year, Jack Shafer argued against what Eichenwald did:

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.

But why the hell not? Shafer argues that this puts the next reporter in a risky position: Will sources trust him or see him an an agent of the law? I think the reporter who does not follow Eichenwald’s lead is in a riskier position: of allowing and thus even abetting crimes to be committed. And what does that tell the public about our role in our communities? What kind of citizens are we then?

Now to the third, inevitable illustration. I wish that On the Media had asked Eichenwald about Judy Miller and related cases, for the parallels are clear. She knew a crime had been committed and she went to jail not to reveal the criminal. Now, of course, the counterargument is, once again, that sources — especially if those sources are the ones performing the criminal act — will not trust reporters and reveal information that should be revealed if they believe those reporters will not protect them and will hand them over to the authorities. But what if the crime is even clearer than revealing classified information? What if it is child molestation or murder?

Where is the line? Especially in a time when any citizen can perform an act of journalism, can there be a line between being a citizen and a journalist?

: LATER: Jeremy Wagstaff disagrees and says journalists aren’t built to be citizens.

  • penny

    Well, Jeff, if I remember correctly it was the MSM’s distortions during Katrina coverage – remember all of those bogus murders in the Super Dome – that added more nails to their coffin. The MSM aren’t our friends. They are a vacuous and arrogant entity that a heart could care less about the reponsibilities of being a good citizen. After all, citizen is far too plebian and not enough nuanced for them.

  • Steve White

    Mr. Jarvis, if you recall the story some years back about the WaPo reporter (Janet someone, sorry) who wrote a piece on an interview with a young boy who had been hooked on heroin. Very moving piece, won some awards, and turned out to be totally phony: no such boy, totally concocted. The reporter was fired, of course.

    Mike Royko, the great Chicago Tribune / Sun-Times reporter, wrote a piece on this that I remember years later. He noted that if he had been the WaPo editor, he would have looked the reporter straight in the eye and said (I’m paraphrasing from a column years ago): “tell me the name, address and location of this boy. Then you and I are going down to the police precinct house in that neighborhood, and we’re going to call Child Protection Services. And we’re going to get that boy off the street and get him the help he needs. And then I’ll print your story.”

    Mr. Royko knew the answer to the dilemna reporters face.

  • chAng


    …I think it should be handled on an individual basis if ever the extreme of a situation does make the case go to court.Maybe even an especially made court for that specific purpose of making the required distinctions between the the fine line of anonymity of sources,criminal activity,and civilian responsibility.


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  • anonymous

    It’s one or the other. Either reporters should intervene and turn in ALL criminals and report ALL crimes. Or none. They can’t pick and choose.

  • Lisa Guinn

    anonymous says “it’s one or the other.” I wanted to agree with him/her, but I couldn’t. I wish it was that simple.

    I think that journalists should not be able to hide behind their profession when it comes to criminal activity. They should have to report it.

    I would also like for journalists to be able to protect their sources, at least to some degree. I admit that I can’t see how this can be done in some cases but not in others.

    So my conclusion is that both journalists AND citizens must really look at their choices. What do they report to the authorities, who do they help, what personal price are they willing to pay? There are no clear-cut answers, you can’t help everyone, and you have to be responsible for your own ethical choices.

    Now the follow-on question: what about doctors, lawyers, priests, etc? How are their ethical and legal responsiblities different?

  • It’s important for journalists to protect sources. Remember Watergate? I suppose that Bernstein should have said “Oh, no, this guy is surely breaking some kind of law” and turned Deep Throat in. Mm, nice second term you have there Mr Nixon.

    Sometimes journalists have to do things that involve talking to people who break the law in order to show society what it’s like. That doesn’t mean standing idly by while someone breaks into a store. But if the only way you can get to talk to someone about something is by promising that you won’t betray their trust, that can be the price of freeing up the information that person holds.

    And of course all the people who are being so determined that journalists must never condone any criminal activity and must always turn them in have never taken drugs, never driven too fast (nor been in a car being driven too fast – of course they turned the driver in to the police), never… oh, broken the law. Right.

  • Actually, it would have been nice had the journalists started asking the ethical questions when they were fanning the flames of war before the ill-considered invasion of Iraq. A little more attention to doing their job properly could have saved the tens of thousands of people needlessly killed and maimed in the war, a war that made the world no more safe and made Iraq a lot more dangerous.

  • Larry Matthews

    As a journalist who a) has investigated child porn on the Internet and b) went to prison for it, let me say that, in my opinion, investigative journalists are in the uncomfortable position of having to choose what to disclose to authorities and what to keep confidential, if only until the story is worked through. In my case, I encountered someone on the Internet (AOL chatroom) whom I believed was trafficking in children for sex. At the time I was investigating child porn. After personal reflection I chose to notify the FBI, believing that in this case the danger to children was greater than my journalistic need to hold on to the information until I could use it in a story. Nonetheless, some time later, I was indicted on child porn charges in a major First Amendment case that eventually became a landmark that severely limits journalists rights (as I see it) to investigate child porn and related issues on the Internet. The ruling, upheld by the Supreme Court, (which refused to review a 4th Circuit decision,) allows the government to determine what journalists may lawfully view online. This, in my opinion, is a bad law.
    Journalists have a responsibility to gather facts. As a general rule, we are not police officers.

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