NYT admits reporter paid source
Here's an interesting ethical dilemma, or two....
The New York Times acknowledged yesterday that former Times staff reporter Kurt Eichenwald paid a source $2000:
NEW YORK - The New York Times acknowledged Tuesday that a reporter who wrote an acclaimed 2005 article about a teenage Internet pornographer helped gain the boy's trust by sending him a $2,000 check.
Former Times staff writer Kurt Eichenwald made the payment in June 2005 to Justin Berry, who at the time was an 18-year-old star in a seedy network of child-porn sites.
Six months later, Berry became the leading figure in Eichenwald's expose on Web sex sites run by teenagers. The Times investigation prompted congressional hearings, led to arrests and fueled reforms in the way Web-hosting companies screen their clients. [Yahoo]
The story is much more complex because Eichenwald developed a personal relationship with Berry months before the expose. The reporter and his wife helped convince the teen to stop making porn, quit drugs, and become a police informant. Eichenwald's editors were aware of the unusual connection between the reporter and his source, and noted it in a sidebar to Eichenwald's article. However, Eichenwald didn't tell his editors that any money had changed hands.
Here's the really weird part. Eichenwald says the check was just a ruse to get the kid's real name and address.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Eichenwald, who left the Times in October, explained that he had sent the teen a check as part of a ploy to learn his true name and address.
At the time, he said, he didn't intend to write about Berry, but had come across his distressing Web identity while researching an unrelated article. Eichenwald said he and his wife decided to try to get help for the young man.
"We were gambling 2,000 on the possibility of saving a kid's life," he said.
Eichenwald said that when he finally decided to write about Berry after meeting him in person, he asked for the money back. Most newspapers, including the Times, prohibit reporters from paying sources. The $2,000 was eventually repaid by Berry's grandmother, he said. [Yahoo]
The most interesting ethical twist is that Eichenwald asked for the money back when he decided to write about the kid. Clearly, he couldn't ethically write about the kid unless he got the money back.
However, it seems equally problematic for a reporter to dangle money in front of a vulnerable subject only to snatch it back again. Promising a drug addicted teen pornographer $2000 and then asking for the money back seems cruel. I'm sure the kid's grandmother wasn't thrilled about having to cough up two grand to cover a debt some reporter created for a story.
Eichenwald said he initially offered the money in order to locate the kid so that he could help him. If this is true, it's an important detail. Setting out to bribe a source is definitely wrong. Deliberately tricking a source with the promise of a bribe is iffy at best. It's certainly unethical for conventional reporting. Maybe a journalist doing cloak-and-dagger undercover reporting on nuclear secrets could justify a bribery ruse if they cleared the whole deal with their editor in advance. That said, what might be within the outer realm of professional ethics as an undercover national security reporter is well out of bounds for a staff writer covering teen pornographers.
It's not clear from the article whether Eichenwald intended to get the money back all along, or whether he intended to let the Berry keep the money, but later changed his mind when he decided to write about him.
It seems clear to me that Eichenwald should have recused himself from the story after his financial dealings with the subject. At the very least, Eichenwald should have disclosed the monetary arrangements to his editor. The more interesting question is what else he did wrong, if anything.