Sex is only one way to spoil a news relationship

 

Sleeping with a source seems like such a transparently bad idea there wouldn’t seem to be much point exploring why journalists shouldn’t do it.

But with the Los Angeles Times summarily firing one of its top investigative reporters after he told his bosses he’d had a brief affair with an informant, it seems worthwhile to look at what the limits ought to be in the relations between journalists and sources.

Physical intimacy is only one of many powerful off-screen entanglements that can develop amid the mutual dependency that often arises between reporter and source. Few of them draw the same gut-level disapproval as extramarital sex, but many still have the potential to corrupt the work that the public sees.

In this case, the Times reporter, Jason Felch, had been investigating the alleged failure of Los Angeles-based Occidental College to comply fully with federal rules requiring it to report complaints of sexual wrongdoing on campus. Felch had written three stories on the subject and had accused Occidental of incomplete disclosure, asserting that allegations of 27 sexual assaults had wrongly gone unreported to U.S. education authorities.

Occidental didn’t address the substance of the stories before they were published, and afterward hired a PR firm to prepare a detailed response. It was presented to the Times in March, three months after the last story ran.

The school argued, persuasively, that Felch had misunderstood his data, and that the 27 unreported instances did not involve assaults at all, but instead covered a range of allegations — distasteful emails, for instance — that fell below the threshold of significance for which disclosure is legally mandatory.

It was, then, when his bosses confronted him with the apparent reporting errors that Felch told them about his romance. He stated that the woman hadn’t been a source since the beginning of their affair, which he said was brief and, by now, was over.

Still, the Times fired Felch — a 10-year employee and a former Pulitzer finalist — and editor Davan Maharaj said Felch’s failure to tell his bosses sooner of his “inappropriate relationship” amounted to “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.” The core point: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information in appearance as well as in fact.”

I’m always uneasy when decisions like this one are made with an eye to appearances, and the Times allowed the core question — was Felch’s reporting skewed by his affections? — to go unaddressed. Too bad, because as a matter of professional conduct (as opposed to personal morality), that’s the question that really ought to matter.

But that silence is unavoidable. Who can possibly know? That’s why sex has to be off-limits for reporter and source. It destroys any reasonable expectation that the source’s influence will be weighed fairly and dispassionately. Did the source offer sex as a way to make sure his or her account got greater weight? Did the reporter suggest that sex might be a way to ensure the source version of events is taken seriously?

And what if sex comes to be seen as a routine part of the bargain, if potential sources understand they might be asked for favors in exchange for sympathetic treatment? How much harm might be done in a general way to the ever-imperiled flow of publicly significant information?

Still, human chemistry being what it is, such things do happen, and even fiercely dedicated professionals may succumb to stupidity. So for a journalist who has done what Felch admittedly did, what should he have done next?

Disclosure and transparency are all the rage — as if improper influences disappear once they’re named — but the best way to handle a potential conflict of interest isn’t to reveal it, but to eliminate it. If a reasonable person might question your capacity to handle a story in a disinterested way, you probably shouldn’t be doing that story.

A reporter who has developed affections, ties, affiliations or loyalties that might tilt his or her reporting has a simple solution: Step aside and hand the work to somebody else.

Still, the Felch affair raises wider-angle questions. After all, sources and journalists rarely sleep together, but they do dine together, drink together, golf together, play tennis, watch ball games and see movies together. Sources invite journalists — and journalists invite sources — to their weddings, confirmations, bar mitzvahs, funerals and baptisms.

Moreover, sources depend on journalists in routine ways, to keep them in or keep them out of the news and float their trial balloons, while journalists need sources to tip them off, prevent them from getting scooped, and keep them employed.

When does all this interdependency get problematic? That’s a big problem, since the entire system of reporting rests on the fact that both parties — as adversarial as they might claim to be — share a huge field of mutual advantage that neither has much wish to spoil.

Still, I think there’s cause to worry whenever there’s an exchange of favors that would lead a reasonable outsider to doubt a reporter’s ability to report fairly.

And that’s a common occurrence, way more routine than a romantic liaison. It requires vigilance and self-criticism, and a newsroom culture that rewards, rather than punishes, honest disclosure.

Edward Wasserman is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

McClatchy Newspapers

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