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June 22, 2009

When Reporters Fall for Their Subjects

A mini-scandal has broken out in Milwaukee, where the city's police chief and a smitten journalist who wrote a breathless magazine profile of him have admitted that they had an extramarital affair. The controversy -- which, if nothing else, surely has been great for driving traffic to Milwaukee Magazine's website -- has zero to do with arts journalism in particular (even if "The Music Man" provides a key metaphor in the 5,400-word piece, where Shakespeare also crops up now and again). But it has everything to do with journalistic ethics, and with an unavoidable ethical issue we tend not to discuss.

The issue is this: Journalists, being human, do sometimes feel strongly attracted to their subjects, whether that attraction is sexual or platonic, and whether it blossoms in a single interview for a one-shot story or develops over time on a regular beat. So at what point does a reporter tell his or her editor, "I'm sorry. I can't do this story because I like this person so much that my objectivity is shot"?

For Jessica McBride, the author of the profile of Police Chief Edward A. Flynn, that conversation probably should have occurred around the time she became conscious that her attraction to him was clouding her vision. McBride, a freelancer and a journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says the affair began after the story ran. There's no reason to doubt that. Even so, a message from her to Flynn, quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, suggests the conflict was evident to her while she was working on the piece:

"Perceived you instantly - knew you were a good person who does things for the right reason," reads one signed Jessica. "As a result, I began to struggle with the story - having to give time to vitriolic baseless attacks."

I've never become romantically involved with someone I've written about, but I've encountered that kind of struggle. I think a lot of us have. The editor of Milwaukee Magazine, Bruce Murphy, confesses in a post today (where he also defends McBride and attacks Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice's "hatchet job" on her) that he has: "I've had the same feelings sometimes as a reporter when writing about someone for whom I have some admiration." It's hard to report and write clearly, fairly and well about people for whom we feel strong affection -- which is one of the reasons we shouldn't do it. (The converse is true, too: It's tough to be fair to subjects we can't stand.) At the same time, gut feelings about the people we cover are real, and even necessary to guide us, at least to some extent. We can't discount them. But we're not always the best judges of the effect our emotions are having on our work.

Ideally, that's where editors come in.
In McBride's case, her editors did her no favors. Murphy calls the story "the toughest profile any reporter had ever done" on Flynn, but its infatuated tone and the sheer quantity of lines that are cringe-inducing in retrospect should have raised editors' concerns even before the affair. Here's one embarrassing bit: "The Music Man always left town -- until he fell in love. More than one year after taking the job, Flynn's wife still lives in Virginia, while he lives alone in a Downtown condo. Could he finally settle down here?" And another: "Yet he always seems to charm the media. 'There's a puff piece everywhere he went,' [a critic] sniffs." Sniffs? Would this be one of the attacks that struck McBride as vitriolic and baseless, and perhaps hit a bit too close to home? Someone should have caught that.

It's a simple fact of life that journalists and their subjects sometimes fall for each other. Soul mates do meet in interviews, or so I've read. That's great, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story -- which is why it's important that editors and reporters heed the danger signs.

What's worrisome in this climate is that the likelihood of editors protecting their writers in that way is decreasing. As staffs shrink -- leaving many newsrooms operating without a bench -- and freelance budgets are slashed, editors have less time than ever simply to listen to their writers. Without that rapport, without open lines of communication, reporters are going to be less likely to talk to their editors when an ethical problem crops up, and editors are going to be less likely to know their writers well enough to sense when something's amiss. With a smaller block of time to devote to each piece, editors are also going to be less careful, racing past red flags that ought to stop them. If they do become aware of a reporter's conflict, they may have neither a staffer to substitute on the assignment nor the money to hire a freelancer. And reporters, fearing for their jobs now more than ever, may not want to risk their livelihoods by calling a possible conflict to their editors' attention.

But the bigger risk all around is running a story by someone who shouldn't have written it. No one wants to be journalism's next cautionary tale.
June 22, 2009 11:59 AM | | Comments (0)

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