A song to read by: “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” by The Monkees
What I’m reading: “Billion Dollar Loser,” by Reeves Wiedeman
In the opening to her 1983 book “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcolm wrote: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
While Malcolm’s characterization is a bit dramatic, the issue she raises is one of perennial importance to journalists of all beats and backgrounds: How should you treat your sources?
Many of the resources that attempt to answer this question are unhelpful, as they tend to focus on only the most extreme of circumstances. How do you protect an anonymous source? When is subterfuge permissible? What do you do when lives are at stake?
Guidelines such as these from Nieman Lab, these from the Society of Professional Journalists, and these from the Ethical Journalism Network deal with high-level, almost abstract concerns, such as protection, transparency, independence, and the primacy of truth-telling. They make great learning material and debate fodder for young journalists, and they clearly establish what behavior should look like on the far ends of the spectrum.
However, when it comes to the quotidian details of journalist-source relationships, there are far fewer founts of information. Articles like this one, from Poynter, offer a glimpse into the moral minutiae that journalists must navigate in conducting relationships with sources, but these kinds of resources are far less common.
This is regrettable, because the simple questions that govern these dynamics are both the hardest and the most ubiquitous: How nice should you be? What if a source dislikes you? What do you do when they ghost you?
While every journalist can give you an answer to these questions, rarely will those answers be identical. Some will counsel dogged pursuit of the truth over all else; others will remind you that maintaining relationships is easier than making new ones. In my career, I have heard journalist-source dynamics characterized as everything from transactional to mutually beneficial, deeply rewarding to extractive.
It should come as no surprise, then, given this wide variance in acceptable behavior, that Ben Smith’s recent profile of Times’ journalist Maggie Haberman caused such a stir.
All the news that’s fit to print … or else
In his profile, Smith chronicles the career of Maggie Haberman, whose reporting for the last four years on President Trump has largely set the agenda for political coverage of the White House.
In an aside, Smith waxes nostalgic about the first time he worked with Haberman, then at The New York Post. Smith admits he was intimidated by Haberman, who, between her leather jacket, cigarette-smoking, and propensity for chatting with cops, “cut a striking figure.”
He then described a memorable component of her morning routine, which helped form his understanding of how good journalists operate:
“I sat facing her and every morning watched her routine, which was terrifying. First, she picked up the competing newspaper, The Daily News, and leafed through for stories she wished she’d broken, deducing who had been the source of each one. Then, she called the sources — she already knew them well, of course — and chatted in a friendly way, before telling them she felt genuinely betrayed that they hadn’t gone to her, that she was worried she’d be in trouble with her boss for getting beaten and, honestly, that she was incredibly angry at them.”
After reading this passage, my initial reaction was shock: “Wait, am I supposed to be doing that?”
I’ve never once tried to guilt my sources into anything, and I would feel terrible pressing them to divulge information if they were uncomfortable doing so. By nature, I am inclined toward amicability in my relationships, so the scene led me to question my level of fitness for a profession that apparently rewards such Machiavellian antics.
Smith, for his part, would seem to agree with my assessment. In the following paragraph, he extolled Haberman’s strategy, writing: “These weren’t the blithe transactions of a slick journalist. This was how you report when you take your sources and your work dead seriously, and make no real distinction between your reporting and the rest of your life. I learned from her never to treat it as a game.”
There are, of course, a number of caveats to first consider. For one, Smith’s story took place nearly 19 years ago, so perhaps Haberman no longer behaves this way, or maybe she only employed these techniques at this particular junction in her career. She was also, importantly, a political reporter in New York City, which has never been a job for the faint of heart.
Still, in that moment, my heart briefly sank. I am a tenacious reporter, I push my sources to give me everything they feel comfortable giving me, and I have no qualms calling out bullshit or questioning those in power. In fact, I love those things.
But what Smith was describing felt like emotional manipulation, not far from the kind of psychological abuse that occurs in toxic relationships. That Haberman would guilt sources into speaking with her by making them feel as if they were responsible for her well-being struck me as decidedly unhealthy, even borderline inappropriate.
Often, when I speak with sources, especially marginalized or vulnerable ones, I communicate with them as if the script of our exchange will one day be broadcast in a courtroom.
Doing so forces me to balance my basest impulses — the ones that push me to get the information I need, to make the deadline, to break the story — with the understanding that I am operating in a professional capacity, and that my actions need to reflect that.
I can be forceful, sharp, and insistent, and I am frequently annoying. But coercive? Bullying? I fail to see where those traits belong in a positive relationship.
Tenacity or manipulation
Not long after I read Smith’s profile did I begin to see the passage in question begin making its way through Twitter. Journalists of all backgrounds alternately defended the behavior and denounced it.
Laura Wingard, the managing editor at the San Diego-based publication inewsource, was one of several who tweeted their support for Haberman’s tactics and their endorsement from Smith.
“I loved reading this story about Maggie Haberman, and think every journalism professor should make their students read it and put Maggie's work ethic into practice,” tweeted Wingard. “Go out. Make sources. Break stories. Kick butt every day!”
Others joined in to commend Haberman’s efforts as an indication of her tenacity.
“The reporters who do this with sources get the scoops,” tweeted Fitzgerald.
Zack Kopplin, an investigative journalist at the Government Accountability Project, was less sanguine about Haberman’s guilt-tripping. Kopplin, who spoke to me in a personal capacity, said that Haberman’s actions constitute manipulation, and that doing so is unethical.
“The relationship between sources and journalists is naturally transactional, but sources are still human beings with thoughts and feelings who deserve to be treated that way,” said Kopplin. “I'm not suggesting journalists become friends with their sources, but listening to them and understanding them is vital.”
Kopplin continued, saying that not only are such tactics unethical, but they lead to poor reporting that places too heavy an emphasis on quick scoops.
Pamela Colloff, a senior reporter at ProPublica covering Texas-based criminal justice, initially praised Haberman’s methodology. Later that day, she deleted her tweet.
All journalists are equal, but some are more institutionally equal than others
These discussions then branched into new directions, concerning race, privilege, and employment.
Elvia Limón, a journalist with the Texas Tribune, brought attention to the role that race plays in determining who can employ these tactics and who can’t.
“My criticism is not toward her writing, which I think is stellar. But I can't entirely agree with the way she cultivated sources when she was covering city hall,” Limón said. “I believe that's emotionally manipulative. I understand that you have to be cutthroat when you're covering government in one of the country's most populated cities, but I also think there are ethical standards that journalists must meet.”
Likewise, Karen Ho, a reporter at Quartz, pointed to the challenges that would face a journalist of color imitating Haberman’s behavior.
“I honestly can't see a lot of journalists of color who could do this without long-term negative repercussions,” Ho tweeted.
Other responses to the article brought up similar points, such as the role Haberman’s social safety net played in supporting her actions. Her father, Clyde Haberman, was a former columnist for The New York Times, and her mother worked in public relations. With a family history of media figures behind her, Haberman might have felt more confident than most when pushing her sources.
In the same vein, critics argued that Haberman’s position at the New York Post, and now The New York Times, afforded her the ability to leverage those imprimaturs when dealing with sources.
Every journalist will agree that having the backing of a moneyed publication opens a lot of doors, a luxury that freelancers and contract workers lack. Still, employment at a legacy publication is by no means a hall pass for guilt-tripping your sources, and Haberman’s actions — empowered as they were by the institutions behind her — are still suspect.
Writer read, writer do
As a fun brain blast, journalism professors love to remind their students that there is no certification required to practice journalism. Doctors have medical licensing exams, lawyers have bar exams, engineers have certifications, pilots have flight licenses — journalists have none of that. This is good and bad for various and sundry reasons, but it creates one issue with certainty: there are few, universally agreed-upon ways of doing journalism.
As a result, who you are as a person strongly colors how you conduct yourself as a journalist. Your work has to check certain boxes, but your process is at least partially your own. So, there will be scrupulous journalists, kind journalists, aggressive journalists, shy journalists — for every kind of person, a kind of journalist.
In the absence of some formal body to issue checks and balances, the responsibility for journalists’ behavior then largely falls to the institutions of journalism and the people that comprise them. Mentors, educators, peers, and coworkers in the industry should embrace the fact that part of their job description is training their younger, less experienced cohort, somewhat through their words but mostly through their actions.
I have been the fortunate recipient of such mentorship throughout my career, and there are so many great reporters whose examples and bodies of work are entire lesson plans in themselves. Rather than focus our attention on the ethically dubious or professionally borderline, we should try to imitate the best qualities of the best reporters.
Haberman and Smith are both incredibly talented journalists whose work I hold in high regard. But in an ideal world, guilt-tripping would remain a tactic to avoid.
Some good readin’
— Casey Newton’s new Substack, Platformer, could not have come at a better time. His analysis has been my go-to for understanding tech’s role in the election. (Platformer)
— Quartz went independent! Curious to see how this turns out. (Quartz)
— A friendly reminder to eat less meat. Please. (The New Republic)
— Not an article, but a podcast: Throwing Fits x Shea Serrano. My life in a podcast. (Throwing Fits)
Cover image: “Dance,” by Henri Matisse