Journalistic ethics

Publishing the name of a pseudonymous blogger. Communicating with minors against their parents’ wishes. Secretly recording a private meeting. Standard journalistic practice, or sociopathy? Let’s explore.

I get why the New York Times might take a hard line against Scott Alexander Rodriguez. Letting the subject of a story dictate its contents is a slippery slope. You start letting a nice psychiatrist keep his name out of the paper, pretty soon you’ll be sending a political campaign an advance copy of a story to make sure the tone is OK.

Journalistic norms have developed over time. There’s one set of rules for dealing with subjects. There’s another set of rules for dealing with sources. Sometimes the source is the subject and a mix of rules apply. Conversations can be “off the record” or “on the record.” There is information given “on background” and “on deep background.”

Some of these practices are in the public interest. We all benefit if our information sources have error-correction and prevention mechanisms built into them. Others benefit the reporters more than the public. If a journalist falsely calls you a murderer in print, you can probably win a lawsuit against them. But if the same journalist reports on false allegations that you’re a murder, you probably can’t (lawyers, don’t @ me; you know what I mean).

When the public’s interest and reporters’ interests don’t overlap we notice a divide. Journalists ask “did we follow the process?” The public asks “did the reporting cause harm?”

Normal person: It’s pretty messed up that the NYT is publishing a blogger’s name for no apparent reason.

Journalist: Well, he is the subject of the story - he isn’t entitled to anonymity.

Normal person: Huh? There are tons of stories that refer to people who “did not want to be named.”

Journalist: But those are sources, not subjects. If they were the focus of the story, they’d be named.

Normal person: Why does that matter? He explained that this would disrupt his medical practice.

Journalist: You don’t understand. This is totally standard practice.

Normal person: Harming the innocent patients of a psychiatrist is standard practice?

Journalist: Look, his name was already out there. He didn’t obscure it properly on several occasions. It’s public information and including it isn’t violating any confidence.

Normal person: Huh? You don’t think having your name in the world’s most influential newspaper is the same as having it scattered in random places online, do you?

Journalist: We can’t let the fact of our reporting influence the contents of our reporting.

Normal person: Why the hell not?

Journalist: Because if we let him influence the reporting decisions, the next thing you know we’ll be emailing presidential campaign chairs stories to make sure they like how everything sounds.

Normal person: What on earth are you talking about?

There are some big issues facing American journalism right now - lack of funding, hostility from politicians, clashes with tech, internal strife in newsrooms. But one that I think doesn’t get enough attention is this: there’s not enough communication about what standard practice is and why it’s worth preserving.

Some of this is happening - e.g., questions about whether objectivity implies neutrality are being discussed publicly. But my advice to journalists (not that they asked for it) is to explain why current processes ought to be followed. And if they can’t, don’t.

All of this is to say: don’t doxx Scott Alexander. It’s not in anybody’s interest.