Monday, December 26, 2005

Pedophilia and Reporting Ethics

Recently I made a short post referencing the long NYT piece by Kurt Eichenwald uncovering and setting up a sting on a major pedophilia ring. It was an amazing piece to read. You know that stuff goes on, but what made this story so unique was that the reporter convinced his source to get out of the business, enter rehab, get an attorney, negotiate for immunity and become a federal witness for the FBI. Ultimately, the source's conversion, directed and facilitated by the reporter, led to the arrests of several evil pedophile svengalis.

The criticism Eichenwald has received, predictably, is that reporters are supposed to report, not participate in the story. In effect, the reporter became a quasi-FBI agent. It should be pointed out, however, that the reporter was not fully in the feds' camp, as there was some time lapse before the FBI would agree to immunity for the young source. Still, the reporter here was clearly the driving force behind all the consequences for both his source and the arrested pedophiles.

At first blush, the tendency is to say, fuck "reporter ethics." The situation is so dire and severe that the current and future harm to children outweighs any reporter principles. Most people would just stop there and say, end of story. You come across a pedophilia ring, you expose it no matter who you are.

I confess, I am one of those people. What you risk is that criminals will fear talking to reporters because they believe reporters might not be neutral but actively working against them. And then if criminals don't speak to reporters, the publishing of a story doesn't happen, and then the real investigators may never get clues within the reporting to advance their investigations. And the reality is criminals are real people, and successful people have healthy egos, and successful criminals are no different. They don't want to get caught, but they are human and want to brag about what they're getting away with sometimes, and will do so if they feel safe when a reporter says I'm not working with police and will protect the identity of my sources. It's a real argument and must be taken seriously.

However, it ultimately must be rejected for two reasons. First, pedophilia is a code red crime, and if reporters helping the feds catch pedophiles leads to the gun smuggler or the white supremacist to not talking where they otherwise would, that is a real cost but one you would pay. Second, the guys with the real egos will still talk anyway. They can't help it. And reporters could legitimtely say look, we're like psychiatrists/psychologists in that we're required to report pedophilia but everything else is confidential. Lawyers have a code of ethics that requires them to disclose crimes they know may be committed or are being committed. Doctors must report child abuse to the authorities. Society has basically already decided that child abuse is a special category of wrong that generates no protection.

I'm tempted to leave the argument there, but there is still a slight difference between reporting pedophilia to the authorities and appointing oneself the project manager for "bringing down the pedophilia ring." Here, Eichenwald clearly went from investigative reporter to project manager for Project: Get Federal Immunity for Source While Insisting Source Change Life, Plus Orchestrating Taking Down Sophisticated National Pedophilia Ring. Basically the difference is between fulfilling an ethical disclosure obligation and taking a deliberate, active role in law enforcement. Society has agreed that the former is an ethical obligation placed on licensed professionals like lawyers, doctors, psychologists and teachers. However, society does not do anything close to requiring those professionals to orchestrate a sting operation.

So, is the disclosure ok but the active orchestration of the sting crossing the line for reporters? That's the question. And when I went to go read a piece about the evil, fascist dictator George Bush personally summoning newspaper publsihers and editors to the White House to pressure them into not publishing tales of his inarguably black and white criminal activity, I encountered this brief discussion of the issues in the pedophile report.

The argument is that if the disclosure does not violate professional ethics (after all, the reporter's source was a victim, not one of the pedophiles), then perhaps the tale of the sting operation and the reporter will create a chilling effect on other investigative journalism. And that such a chilling effect cannot be undone, once done.

I remain open to being convinced otherwise, but my position is that the reporter has an obligation to ensure something is being done to stop the harm to children once he knows it is happening. If his or her participation can provide non-superfluous aid (and in this case the reporter is going to be a federal witness), then I think the risk of harm to the reporting craft is outweighed by the need to bring child-harmers to justice.

Your opinions?


Blogger TubaOnFire said...

Perhaps I am overly cynical with the current state of reporting in this country, but lets be serious here, reporters exist for one reason: to get you to buy the paper, so you read the ads, so you buy Skippy instead of Jif. That is it. They are entertainers. Imagine Cher was playing a concert, and in the middle of it, she saw someone molesting a 7 year old and she didn't stop singing "Do you believe in life after love?" to alert the authorities, because that would violate the performers code of ethics???

I know that this is crass and oversimplifies a complex issue, but I believe that an ethical reporter can make the decision of what the line is. I think the line is often crossed when you have unethical reporters who are hunting for glory or celebrity. As far as investigative journalism goes, I don’t know that the effect of this pedophilia story would be that strong. I don’t know if whistleblowers will be chilled by this and I don’t know if people will be more wary about talking to reporters. I think you are right about the ego – the talkers talk and not much will stop them.

At the simplest level, this guy saw a horrible wrong and he did his best to solve it. I think the world is a better place for that.

8:52 AM  

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