Source relationships and ethics in journalism
Journalists can spend weeks, months, and even years with sources getting to know their everyday habitual routines, their familial relationships, and even their darkest fears. Within this process, reporters may share certain personal information to relate to their sources and make conversations feel less one sided. However, for this relationship to function ethically, it is imperative that journalists follow the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and are transparent and forthright not only with their sources but also with their readers.
The SPJ code of ethics states “a journalist’s job is to seek the truth and report it,” but this can be incredibly difficult to balance, especially when a reporter knows a source personally. This is evident in the case of Nina Totenberg, a prominent National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent who often covered the Supreme Court. In Totenberg’s 2022 book, “Dinner with Ruth,” she describes how she and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were long-term best friends. After RBG’s passing, she stated, “What we shared was the special warmth and closeness of longtime friendship.” We were present in each other’s lives, especially when it mattered most. We showed up.”
This was clearly an example of a conflict of interest, as she was able to get the “insider” scoop on not only Ginsburg but also politicians across D.C. Totenberg recounts that she hosted a dinner party and invited Justice Antonin Scalia, who among other things was instrumental in the District of Columbia v. Heller case in 2008 that cemented the right to bear arms, even in the wake of America’s rampant gun violence epidemic. During the party, Totenberg provided water guns to the guests, and her husband even aimed a super squirter at Scalia. Totenberg claims that this joke “brought the house down with laughter.”
Despite her closeness with Washington’s political elite, Totenberg did not fully disclose the extent of her friendship with Ginsberg to NPR readers until well into her career. Rightfully so, this led many people to feel betrayed and question if her coverage of the Supreme Court was hard-hitting and fair. When people develop personal connections to their sources, they might not ask the necessary questions or fail to be critical of their sources’ professional and even personal choices. They may stop searching for the truth in fear of losing or damaging the friendship. This is incredibly dangerous to the foundation of journalism because it diminishes accurate reporting and blurs the line between the role of a source and a friend.
Moreover, Totenberg’s actions are not an isolated incident. Going back a few decades to the late 70s, the case of Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald is a prime example of what happens when a journalist and a source’s personal relationship undermines the goals of objective journalism. In 1979, MacDonald, who was accused of the murder of his pregnant wife and two children, was invited McGinnis, a journalist, to write a book about his murder trial from the perspective of his defense team. After the seven week trial, MacDonald was convicted of murder. However, after the trial, McGinniss and MacDonald began a letter correspondence that continued over the next four years. In the novel “the Journalist and the Murderer,” Malcolm states that when MacDonald was sent to prison in Aug. 1979, he wrote to McGinniss, “And I don’t know what to say to you except it is not true, and I hope you know that and feel it and that you are my friend.”
On Sept. 11, 1979, McGinniss wrote in response: “Dear Jeff, … Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial .… Frankly, I am not sure what Keeler’s attitude toward you is. I’m not implying that he believes you are guilty — I just don’t know, but I think it would be better on many counts if you did nothing to encourage or to assist anyone else who might be planning to write about this…. It’s a hell of a thing — spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey — not for long.” McGinniss clearly crosses an ethical line by calling MacDonald a friend and encouraging him not to talk to other writers. The SPJ code of ethics warns that journalists must “Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.”
McGinniss broke this code as he later revealed he had no intentions of exonerating or actually being friends with MacDonald. Instead, he deceived him to keep him close and to finish the project. The finished product was a best-selling book called “Fatal Vision” which brought fame and money to McGinniss, while MacDonald was painted out to be a “cold-blood killer, a narcissist, and a psychopath.” This was incredibly unethical. Although journalists do not have to disclose every thought they have about a subject or situation to their sources, they do owe it to their sources to be transparent about their objectivity and/or intentions. Due to this misstep, McGinniss was brought to court in 1984 by MacDonald and sued for fraud and breach of contract.
The trial was examined extensively in Janet Malcolm’s book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” and at the trial, writers and journalists testified that it was okay to lie to subjects for the sake of the story. Joseph Wambaug, a best selling non-fiction writer and a witness for the defense, asserted that “A lie is something that’s told with ill will or in bad faith that is not true,” while an untruth is “part of a device wherein one can get at the actual truth.” Janet Malcom builds on this sentiment in “The Journalist and the Murderer,” as she characterizes all journalists/source relationships as having a “self-satisfied tone and a fundamental falseness.”
I believe that this culture of lying is present within the journalism industry as people are forced to get the “first scoop” or the most sensational stories. I think that perspectives like Malcolm’s are problematic and do not challenge this “insider” culture, but rather normalize it. In general, I believe that the fate of journalism is threatened when journalists begin building a reputation for conning sources as people will refuse to be interviewed in fear of being used or betrayed.
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