The source wanted out

Why our decision was ‘no’

The source understood she was “on the record” when she gave personal information. The problem began when she wanted to take it back.

By Shoshana Hoose

Shoshana Hoose is a reporter for the Portland (Maine) Press Herald.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 3 (June 1990), p. 2.

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.

 

I was finishing a six-week project on adoption when one of my main sources telephoned to say she wanted out.

Suddenly, my editors and I had big questions:

Did we have the right to print sensitive and potentially embarrassing information about an adoptive mother from rural Maine against her will? Did she have the right to stop the story after she had knowingly consented to the interview?

Deb Pelletier had been remarkably candid when I had met her more than two weeks earlier. She told how she and her carpenter-husband had paid an out-of-state baby broker thousands of dollars to find them a white infant to adopt.

Before the interview began, Deb asked me if her name would be printed. I explained that the Portland newspapers have a strict policy about using only named sources. I advised her that to avoid misunderstandings she should not tell me anything she did not want in the paper.

I was quite clear on that point because several months earlier a source had given me personal information off the record and my editors insisted that it be printed. As a result of the disagreement, the whole story was spiked.

Deb showed that she understood the ground rules by declining to reveal exactly how much money she and her husband spent on the adoption or to identify the baby broker.

She did not know that the person who arranged my interview with her had told me the broker’s name, Richard Gitelman.

I spent the two weeks after my interview with Deb completing research and writing the adoption articles. When I phoned her to check some facts, Deb provided the information without voicing any concern about the story. But she declined to have a family photograph taken.

Eighteen days after the interview, Deb phoned with her startling news: She had been uncomfortable about the story and had finally decided that only her one-year-old daughter had the right to make public the circumstances of the adoption.

The next day, Deb repeated her concerns to the project editor, Tom Ferriter. She enlisted the help of a local lawyer in her effort to stop the story.

The newspaper’s attorneys reviewed case law in the area and concluded that the Pelletiers did not have grounds for claiming invasion of privacy.

But the ethical issues could not be so easily dismissed.

I had sympathy for Deb. It did seem unfair that we could print such private information about her family without their consent.

But I was convinced that I had thoroughly explained our policy and that she knew, or should have known, what she was agreeing to.

Ordinarily, this article would have been written and printed shortly after the interview. It was only because this project took several weeks that Deb had so much time to reconsider. I knew other sources featured in the adoption project also were having second thoughts. If we allowed the Pelletiers to pullout, would we have to do the same for anyone else who asked?

John Murphy, executive editor of the Portland newspapers, made the decision to print the Pelletiers’ story. He said he did so because Deb had agreed to the interview “with her eyes wide open,” and because he thought the story would educate and inform the public.

Deb was allowed to read the story before publication, an unusual but not unprecedented practice at the Portland newspapers.

At her request, the editors agreed to omit the fact that the Pelletiers had arranged the adoption through Gitelman.

Fenriter said Deb apparently believed that she had an understanding with me that the broker’s name would not be printed, and he wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt because she was inexperienced in dealing with reporters.

Deb and her lawyer threatened legal action up until the day before the story was published. They have not contacted the paper since.

I was glad to see the story in print, but I was keenly aware that Deb probably felt taken advantage of by the newspaper. The experience reinforced for me how careful reporters must be when interviewing people not normally in the news.