What are the Rules?

I was reading this the other night, about a well-regarded Medill School of Journalism professor who’s well-known Innocence Project may have hit some speed-bumps.

It makes me think about two things: what the rules of reporting are, and how much one misstep undoes a successful career.

I try to always be honest with interview subjects, but sometimes you know something and you need to get someone else to say it to put it in the paper. When the whole town was talking about a drug connection with Krista Dittmeyer, for example, it took finding the father of her child to get that in the paper, and then it took the court documents saying she was robbed of drugs and money before she was killed to really get it out there. You can’t just say something unless you have a credible source, and credible sources are often reluctant to admit what they know. Sometimes you have to pump them for information and get it out of them.

That’s different than pretending you are a census worker, as one person in this story did. I always identify myself as a reporter right away. I think people should know what is at stake before they say anything. But that doesn’t exactly square with what I just wrote, where I’m working to get a source to go on the record with something I know, so obviously it’s a tough line to walk.

But let’s say someone crossed it at Medill, just for the sake of discussion. If the process frees innocent people from death row, isn’t it worth it? (Now you’re thinking you should go back and read the article, eh? It’s good.) I’m not sure — it’s a bit Machiavellian. I do not agree with Barry Goldwater’s assertion that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I don’t think people should be carted off because they are communists, Muslims or anything else in a pluralist society. Jumping out of bounds to free people may seem inarguable, but what happens if you aren’t looking hard enough at the possibility they are guilty.

I don’t know though. Justice isn’t blind, though we’d like it to be, and the Innocence Project has always seemed spectacular to me. I hope it keeps going, prospers and spreads. Every guilty verdict is worth a second look — if they are guilty it will have been a good exercise; if they are innocent they deserve to be freed. Just don’t step outside the rules to find out either way.

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