Broken promise

Breaching a reporter-source confidence

When a journalist makes a promise to a source, he or she usually has every intention of honoring that pledge. But sometimes a reporter doesn’t have the authority.

By Andrea Peyser

Andrea Peyser is a reporter for The New York Post. The incident on which this article is based took place when she was a reporter for The Tampa Tribune.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 5 (July 1989), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Breaking a promise for anonymity is always a painful, ethically dangerous decision for a newspaper. It becomes excruciating when the person being revealed is a 5-year-old girl with AIDS.

In 1987, The Tampa Tribune published the name of Eliana Martinez, a child involved in a highly publicized struggle for entry into the public school system. The Tribune made the difficult decision despite impassioned entreaties from Eliana’s mother, who feared her daughter – who is mentally retarded – would be mercilessly harassed.

In writing the story, I was forced to break a long-standing promise to keep Eliana’s identity a secret – and found myself thrust into a debate pitting an innocent child’s safety against the perceived media manipulation of her mother.

Rose Martinez adopted Eliana as a baby from her native Puerto Rico, where the child had contracted the AIDS virus from blood transfusions.

Through intense love and attention at her mother’s Florida home, Eliana evolved from a mute, staring vegetable to an active, laughing child – though one without the ability to speak, read or control her bowels.

With fierce resolve, Rosa Martinez entered into a fight with the school board in Tampa to have Eliana placed in special-education classes – the only place, she felt, her daughter would reach her full potential. The school board, fearing Eliana’s lack of toilet training would pose a health threat to other children and teachers, denied the request.

Eliana’s mother took her struggle to the Tribune, giving a reporter an exclusive interview on one condition: Her daughter’s full name and address be kept a secret, at least until the case made it to federal court.

Rosa Martinez’s crusade attracted considerable attention from local print and broadcast news organizations, all of whom followed the Tribune’s lead and did not identify Eliana – even when she was paraded before a public school board meeting.

In the midst of the battle, I took over the education beat from the reporter who had broken Eliana’s story. At the time Rosa Martinez, having exhausted all her options with the school board, was about to plead her case before a state hearing officer.

An administrative hearing is not a legal proceeding. There is no jury or judge, although testimony and evidence are presented. It was the job of the hearing officer to give a second opinion of the school board’s decision to bar Eliana from school.

Rosa Martinez, always accessible to the media, agreed to open the hearing to the public – an unusual move in a case involving a minor. Before the hearing, she reminded me that Eliana’s full name was to be kept secret for now.

But Lawrence McConnell, who was then assistant managing editor and as new to the case as I was, demanded the child’s identity be published.

His reason was simple: Rosa Martinez had opened the case to the public, therefore, anyone who wanted to could attend the hearing and learn the child’s name. McConnell also believed the mother had taken too much control over the media in an attempt to further her own agenda.

It was with a heavy heart that I called Rosa Martinez to tell her that the family’s name would be revealed in the next morning’s paper. She begged me not to print it. I told her – as did a slew of editors up the line – that there was no choice.

While I agreed with the editor that the woman had exercised control, perhaps too much control, over news coverage, I wondered whether my paper was justified in flexing its First Amendment muscle in a case involving a sick child.

The story was about Eliana, not her mother. It was unlikely that the child was aware of what was going on around her. Didn’t her safety and privacy outweigh the public’s right to know? ( Shortly after the Tribune article was published, other media started using Eliana’s full name.)

In addition, it was her mother’s cooperation that made it possible in the first place for us to cover the story. Should we risk at this point losing her goodwill even if it meant missing out on future stories?

By far the most troubling aspect was the broken promise. The Tribune had agreed to wait until the case arrived in federal court before publishing Eliana’s name. Was it possible that Rosa Martinez might have decided not to bring the case to court, in order to protect her daughter’s privacy? By jumping the gun, we made the decision for her.

I am still troubled by the newspaper’s decision. There is a special trust between reporter and source that cannot be violated if we are to maintain our integrity. But perhaps the responsibility for this breach lies with both reporter and source: The reporter made a mistake by promising too much in pursuit of a good story. Rosa Martinez made a mistake by asking for too much in pursuit of her goal.

 

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