Topic: Society

Kurt Eichenwald
(December 2005)

Being an ethical professional includes knowing when it is right to violate professional ethics, and having the courage to do it. Kurt Eichenwald, a New York Times reporter, showed that he was an ethical professional when he decided to convince a teenager whom he was using as a source for a story on child pornography to get out of the porn business, give up drugs, get a lawyer, and work undercover to help Federal authorities arrest molesters and traffickers.

There is no question that Eichenwald violated the key tenet of journalistic ethics that demands that a reporter only record and communicate events, not take part in them. But Eichenwald felt that the correct course, in this particular case, was to cross that line. “We are sitting there facing a horrible reality,” he explained in essay in the Times about the ethical dilemma. “Every day I’m sitting there working on the story, there are children being molested and exploited, and we have a source who knows who and where they are.” Eichenwald’s reformed source, now nineteen years old, had been performing sex acts in front of a web cam since he was only thirteen. Now he has led federal authorities to several arrests, and has rescued other children from sexual abuse and exploitation.

As Eichenwald and his editors at the Times (who courageously backed his decision) predicted, some media critics and journalism ethicists have condemned his actions. Leading the way was Slate media critic Jack Shafer, who made a compelling argument:

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? Will the just-turned-18-years-old subjects expect future reporters to 1) help get them a lawyer who will 2) assist them in becoming witnesses for the prosecution, because Eichenwald helped Berry? Will online pornographers and other allied criminals now regard reporters as agents of the state? Don’t be surprised if they start treating reporters as cops…

Shafer’s view is consistent with core professional ethics principles. A reporter maintains professional distance to maintain the integrity of his profession for the endless line of future reporters whose access to stories may depend on a subjects’ expectation regarding what reporters can and cannot do. It is the same reason defense attorneys must not incriminate their most dangerous and guilty clients: their duty is to the justice system and their clients, not the general public. As a journalist, Eichenwald had no professional duty to the public other than to report the story clearly and accurately, and none whatsoever that would require or even permit him to persuade his subject to become a Federal informer. But all professionals work within more than one ethical framework, and one of them is their own set of values. Eichewald’s response to Shafer illustrates this:

…there is no telling whether these children would have survived had we gone down the path you are suggesting. And I just simply cannot believe that the ethics of our profession require us to stand by and let children be abused or killed–or for us to risk even causing their deaths, by recklessly endangering them… I could not be prouder of the New York Times than in knowing that, when those tough choices had to be made, they came down on the side that meant saving children. Then, knowing that there would be those who would disagree with the tough call we made, they came down on the side of disclosing everything we did, allowing journalistic ethicists who were not in the horrible position of making this decision to criticize us for it.

In the end, both the reporter and his newspaper made an ethical decision based on personal, not professional, ethics: if being a journalist means letting children continue to be abused when they could stop it, then there are more important things than being a journalist.

And there are.

Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy