Rules aren’t neat on Crack Street

Journalists know the rules; they also know that the rules don’t always apply when confronted with life-threatening situations.

Journalists know the rules; they also know that the rules don’t always apply when confronted with life-threatening situations.

By Doreen Carvajal

Doreen Carajal is a reporter forThe Philadelphia Inquirer.

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

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 5 (August 1990), pp. 2-3.

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.


Sometimes my beat takes me to a surreal land of poverty and sagging rowhouses that anti-drug activists call Vietnam and patrol cops scornfully label Oz, “where the abnormal is normal.”

So entrenched is the crack economy that dealers attacked an undercover police surveillance van this year in this struggling North Philadelphia neighborhood. So infamous is the neighborhood that out-of-town journalists frequently stop here for a glimpse of a drug war’s front line.

For these correspondents there is physical peril and ethical danger because the front line is a war without conventional rules.

In June, LIFE magazine published a haunting black-and-white portrait of North Philadelphia with photos of a gun-toting drug enforcer, a street littered with glittering vials, and a sleepy crack addict named Sarah Robinson.

Sarah eventually charged LIFE magazine a $150 “consultant’s” fee for services, a payment that LIFE magazine later defended as necessary protection money. But local ministers and residents seized on the issue, complaining the stark photos were staged and subjects were paid to pose.

The journalists involved insisted that wasn’t so.

Late last year, the Detroit Free Press also encountered trouble while gathering information for its front-line project — “Twenty-four Hours: The Drug Menace.”

A Pulitzer-prize winning photographer and a veteran reporter were suspended after editors learned that while on special assignment the photographer gave a drug addict money which enabled him to buy more crack.

“It really is tricky, isn’t it?” said Heath J. Meriwether, the Free Press executive editor. “We take our city government sources to lunch . . . These various kinds of things are all part of source development. But at what point with these drug people are we crossing some line? We define it when it facilitates the story — if you facilitate their ability to get drugs.”

In the Detroit case, Free Press editors decided $23 was too high a price to pay a crack addict in trade for a sausage sandwich and a Sony Walkman radio.

In the Philadelphia case, LIFE magazine decided $150 was a reasonable price to pay for a crack addict’s street skills.

So who is right?

Most professional news organizations prohibit payment for interviews or photographs because of the theory that the credibility of the news could be tainted by the self-interest of a paid news source.

But at the same time, journalists routinely court news sources over lunch, dinner, or drink. The aim is to build trust and rapport, two goals that are not much different for a street reporter who is trying to earn the confidence of a crack user.

Since it’s not likely that a journalist can penetrate the drug subculture with a steak tartar business lunch, is it wrong to give money to a crack addict who says she needs Pampers for her toddler? Is it wrong to give a few dollars to an addict who pleads for milk for her child? Do you give the money even if you know it will most likely be used for drugs?

In cases such as these the guiding principle is simply honesty, according to Bob Steele, the director of the ethics program for the Poynter Institute.

“You have to ask good questions of yourself,” he said. “Would I be comfortable in telling the public that I paid someone? Could you run a story on your own newspaper telling people what you did to get a story?”

Eventually, the Detroit Free Press did tell the story behind the story of Tim, a 26-year-old crack addict, and his friends “Tex” and “Dave.”

Meriwether wrote the story, which appeared on page 3 under the headlines: “A Bad Judgment on Drug Coverage Breaks a Bond of Trust.”

In LIFE magazine’s case, the publisher said in an introductory note that their journalists had acquired a street guide for their photo essay on the “Children of the Damned.”

It was a most formidable assignment, according to that note, which described how on bad days in “Fear City” veteran reporter Ed Barnes and photographer Eugene Richards sported bullet-proof vests. Barnes, the note said, followed a tough guy approach — “If someone pulls a gun on you, use it as an opportunity.” So when a woman waved a gun at them one day, they quickly talked her into working for them.

That woman was Sarah Robinson, a crack addict who appears in three of the photos in the LIFE essay. The note does not identify the guide as Sarah or explain how the journalists were so persuasive.

Six months ago Richards and Barnes had encountered Sarah Robinson in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where she sells “skadoodles” — fake marijuana to support her drug habit. “I was running my big mouth off to them,” recalled Robinson, who also readily concedes that she waved a gun at them in jest. “They didn’t offer me any money at first. They were asking lots of questions and then I said — ‘Hey, am I getting paid?’”

“We made an agreement,” she said, describing how she was paid about $150 to make contacts, introductions, and to help arrange photos.

Richards, the photographer, insisted that Robinson was paid for her street skills and not her photographs. “You don’t buy pictures,” he said. “You don’t set up photos.”

In fact, he said that he didn’t start to photograph Robinson until after she had stopped working for them and it was clear that her drug problem was deepening.

“The main thing was for Sarah to keep talking to people and let them know we’re reporters, not cops,” he said. “That was her function.”

“I was up there for six weeks. I saw bodies, I saw overdoses, I saw two people die. I don’t know how many cracked up kids I saw. The problem is there,” Richards said.

It’s not unusual journalistic practice to pay for a guide, but it is rare to make the hired guide a photo subject, according to a number of experts on journalistic ethics.

“It’s almost like an illustration. You’re paying somebody to be a consultant and you’re paying someone to be a model. So what else are they not telling? You want to assume they’re not telling people where to stand, where to pose. But are they?” said Paul Lester, author of The Ethics of Photojournalism, a textbook that will be published in the fall.

But isn’t it just common sense to pay someone if a photographer or reporter literally fears a physical threat? The rules of the street are not nice and clean, as photographer Richards pointed out.

“The problem with some stories is that the photographer and reporters really do fear for their lives. They’re giving the money out because they thought they might get beaten up and lose their money anyway,” said Lester.

That is the same argument LIFE made in defense of payments to its guide.

“This is not Disneyland; this is a very dangerous place,” said LIFE spokesman Robert Pondiscio, who added that the journalists also paid to enter crack houses.

Meriwether, the Free Press editor, said journalists have to rely on common sense in dangerous situations, but they should be willing to tell their editors what happened.

That didn’t happen when his reporters first returned from a long night of trailing a trio of crack users.

As Meriwether describes it, two of the newspaper’s journalists — photographer Manny Crisostomo and reporter Pat Chargot — managed to get close enough to a crack cocaine addict named Tim to observe his frantic quest for drugs.

The problem was they got too close for the paper’s comfort. When the journalist made their first contact with Tim in a bar, Crisostomo paid $3 for a sausage to Tim, who intended to spend the money on drugs.

On the night of the 24-hour watch, Crisostomo and Chargot drove Tim and his friends on their search for drugs. When the drug users exhausted their own resources, they turned in desperation to the journalists and asked them “repeatedly” to buy a Sony Walkman radio for $20.

“The photographer said these guys were as jumpy as heck. It was an odd time on dark streets and he’s got jumpy guys who are smoking crack and who want more,” said Meriwether.

Crisotomo later said that safety was the primary reason he bought the radio. But with the instant 24-hour format of the drug story, the journalists were also under tremendous pressure to come up with a crack addict during a fleeting amount of time. The following day shaggy-haired Dave appeared on the front page of the Free Press, delicately smoking crack.

The text even noted their efforts to raise money: “After making at least six runs to three different places to score, Tim has 45 cents. He begs a reporter and photographer for money, which he doesn’t get.”

A few weeks later the real facts were revealed to editors by Chargot who was troubled by what happened. Chargot was suspended without pay for two days and Crisotomo for three.

“I still believe that there’s a great truth in what we reported,” said Meriwether. “I think we got closer to what’s really going on, but we violated our standard to get there. It’s certainly tainted.”

“We don’t pay for news,” he said. “Indirectly, you’re paying for news by buying a radio when they want to buy crack. You’re buying the situation.”

Not long ago I was assigned a story in a North Philadelphia neighborhood that anti-drug activists consider the city’s most troubled drug territory. I walked through a ragged, Quaker burial ground where junkies rested on marble tombstones and spent syringes marked the simple graves. A burly photographer accompanied me, but there were six men gathered in a camp circle among the headstones.

If my only defense were money, I realize now that I would have given it readily. I value my life too much to die for the front page and the comics.

But I didn’t feel the same fear when I found Sarah Robinson on a hot afternoon. She cheerfully offered to sell me some skadoodles, which were old tobacco leaves packaged in plastic.

Twice she ran away from me after I questioned her about the LIFE photos. The third time we talked, and it was clear she enjoyed the attention, boasting about her role as street guide.

Later I was surprised when a LIFE magazine spokesman asked me about my interview with Robinson. He asked if I had paid her too.

I used to think the answer was obvious.