Journalists’ Responsibility Is To The Truth, Not The Cops

By | August 29, 2006

I have a lot of admiration for BuzzMachine who expresses better than most the changes underway in blogging and journalism, but sometimes I get depressed about how the blogosphere views journalists, and, frankly, how little they understand their profession. This would be fine, but the success of blogs (a good thing) sometimes engenders what feels like a moral superiority over journalists. That lack of humility is out of place in such a new, and fast-changing medium.

Take this post, for example, that calls on journalists to behave more like citizens and report criminal activities to the police, like NYT reporter Kurt Eichenwald turned in child porn web sites because it is the law. Jeff’s take:

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?

As I understand it, Jeff is suggesting a journalist should report to the police if he or she believes a crime has been committed. He says that the only counterargument to this is 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.”

This call gets the usual smattering of anti-MSM comments in agreement. But at least one commenter, Charles Arthur, editor of the technology supplement of The Guardian, sees the obvious hole in this one: “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.”

But that’s not all. Journalists are not designed to operate as citizens, and it’s unreasonable to suggest that being a reporter means being a bad citizen. The problem with the suggestion is that it concerns itself with clearcut cases: It may seem irresponsible not to report a paedophile ring, but should I then report every case of apparent corruption I come across? Every spammer I interview? Every indication of corporate fraud I come across on my stock reporting beat?

The bigger point is that journalists are in a place to report, and occupy a place somewhere alongside the Red Cross in terms of neutrality. This may sound pompous if you’re not in a war zone, but if you are, that’s exactly where you’d like others to consider you. This is why press and their vehicles are clearly marked. You want both sides to consider you as an impartial observer; your life may depend on it. This is a core tenet of journalism, and is something bloggers should be embracing, not trying to dismantle. (In many countries if a journalist was seen to be cooperating so closely with law enforcement, their lives would be in danger.)

Furthermore, what law? If a journalist is considered by government and law enforcement agencies as a model citizen who shops every law breaker she/he comes across in his/her line of work, does that mean even controversial laws that the journalist is writing about? So interview a bunch of human rights illegally blocking a military runway, and you’ll have to turn them after the interview is over?

The bottom line is that we expect our journalists to go out there and talk to all the people we can’t talk to, because we’re here, we don’t have the access, we don’t have the background, we don’t have the time, and then distill their knowledge and, where applicable moral judgements, in a way that makes sense to us. Their eyes and ears are ours not because we want to hear what laws have been broken, but because we want to understand the essential truth of the situation. A family living on benefits in a tenement: We don’t want the journalist to report potential abuses of the benefit system to the police, we want to know why the family is having problems, and, hopefully what may be done to solve the problem.

Journalism is rarely to do with the law. It’s about much more than that. If we suddenly expect our journalists to be model citizens, whatever they are, we can only blame ourselves if they come back with a much smaller part of the story.

7 thoughts on “Journalists’ Responsibility Is To The Truth, Not The Cops

  1. Kurt Eichenwald

    Why is it so many journalists write about the law without learning something about it first?

    Let’s start with one simple fact: Larry Matthews, an award winning journalist who reported on Internet child porn, went to jail for 18 months for violating the law. JAIL, Jeremy. The courts held that there was no journalistic exception under the child porn law, and the fact that Matthews did not know he was committing a crime was irrelevant.

    Viewing child porn is illegal. If you have searched for it, and then viewed it, nothing you can do can save you from possible prosecution. If you have found it inadvertently, as I did, the law affords a safe harbor for those who report it to authorities immediately. If you do not report it, it is presumed that you were searching for it.

    I could have ignorantly stood there and say “Law be damned! I’m a journalist!” And promptly been arrested on publication of my story, with the words I wrote serving as exhibit A against me.

    The problem in the criticism here is one of sloppy thinking. There is a difference between REPORTING on lawbreaking and potentially breaking the law yourself. If a source shipped you a box, and it contained cocaine, my hope is that you would not throw it in a drawer, proclaiming the right to hold onto the illegal substance because you are a journalist. You would have to report it and turn it in.

    That is exactly what the law requires for people who inadvertently discover child porn. We are required to report it. We followed the law.

    If you don’t believe in such practices, I eagerly await the Wall Street Journal’s publication in England of British Official Secrets, as well as all sorts of other acts that will subject the paper and its reporters to potential criminal sanctions.

    And if that is not what you are arguing for…then how does the situation involving my reporting apply to this?

  2. wicak

    J, this is a similar problem that journalistic photographers face. Do we capture the moment or do we help the person. Do we show the world what life is like outside their sheltered lives? Do we not do what we are programmed to do to become ‘model citizens’?
    It is a dillema. Maybe more clear cut for life and death situations, but even then…
    One answer that I have once received is, Superman can do both.

  3. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Kurt, thanks for the comments, and they are very valid ones. I think, as you suggest, we’re talking about different things here. You are talking about journalists breaking the law; the discussion is/has become one about whether journalists should report crimes they witness/perceived to have happened/criminal behaviour, in the same way a model citizen would. Your argument, that not to have reported what you witnessed would have led to jail for you, is a sound one (at least in those places where it is a criminal offence not to have done so, and where the crime is not one that is itself controversial). Jeff’s post, as I understand it, has extrapolated from that and suggests that journalists have a moral and ethical responsibility, not mentioning a legal one, to report crime:

    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?

    Your case would appear clearcut, then. You followed the law. But there are plenty of instances when a journalist is confronted by murkier circumstances where s/he might still be breaking the law, but does not feel that reporting the crime/cooperating with police would be the moral or ethical thing to do. Not revealing one’s sources (in a real situation, where the source is a real whistleblower) in defiance of a judge, say, or knowing the whereabouts of some Burmese monks who have demonstrated against the government and are now in hiding from security forces. Indeed, you mention the British Official Secrets Act, which until 1989 had a Public Interest clause which was successfully used in the Clive Ponting case. Even after the clause was removed Katharine Gun, a GCHQ translator who also leaked information to a newpspaer, escaped jail in 2004 when the government dropped the case.

  4. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Wicak, it’s a strong argument and I know from your case it’s a real life issue. Sometimes what journalists/photographers/cameramen do seems callous, trampling through a refugee camp and trying to find the most emaciated baby without offering any help. But those people who criticize that behaviour are usually those who watch the footage /read the story that informs them of the crisis in the first place.

    In a perfect world we’d do our work and then set down our tools and do what we can to help — and there are recent cases in Darfur and Lebanon of journalists doing exactly that. But it’s not always practical or effective — if the camp is more than a million strong, say, and if it means that helping them slows or prevents getting the news out to a wider world. Compassion is great, and anyone who thinks a journalist, with his/her dark humor and obsession with deadlines, lacks compassion is mistaken, but a journalist is there to do a journalist’s job, first and foremost. If they fail at that, then they also fail to better inform those people who could, through political pressure or donations, provide the logistics to help far many more people than any one person can.

  5. Juha

    This is a very interesting post. Last year, I wrote some stories that were very hard to do, because I was literally walking on eggs. There were several legal minefields involved, including the Computer Crimes Act, the Privacy Act and the equivalent to the Young Persons Act here. It was pretty hairy stuff…

    Stories here and here.

    I have reason to believe the voice mail vulnerability still exists, but proving that it does might land me in some hot legal water, so…

  6. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Juha, thanks for this. So what’s your conclusion? Did you find your journalistic ethics or objectives constrained by the laws? Did the laws protect people, or did they just try to ring-fence the obscurity of the security process? Where does a journalist trying to uncover security weaknesses end up committing a crime, and when is that crime in the public good?

  7. Juha

    The conclusion is that I feel strongly that the law isn’t protecting the people in this case. Instead, the law is used to as you say obscure the failings of the security process.

    The Computer Crimes law in NZ is new, largely untested and carries pretty stiff sentences for vaguely defined breaches of it.

    In order to claim that the vulnerability has not been rectified, I would either have to test it myself, or rely on someone else trying it out.

    The original “teen hacker” ended up in court over it, so there’s a good chance that any testing would have legal repercussions.

    My ethics say I can’t ask anyone else to test the vulnerability and take the rap for it which leaves me wondering if I should bite the bullet for the public good. I’m undecided at the moment – a braver/more reckless journo would probably have gone ahead already, but I still have unpleasant memories from the original stories, of consulting lawyers to work out what I could and couldn’t say, not to mention the sinking feeling I got when I saw the list of people whose voice messages had been accessed.

    This may change soon, as the government here is introducing protection for whistle-blowers. From memory, the bill is still under deliberation though.


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