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.