To E-Mail or Not to E-Mail: Can Reporters Offer Views in Private Correspondence
NEW YORK The widely publicised experience of a Wall Street Journal reporter in Baghdad, whose private correspondance to family and friends ripping conditions in Iraq found its way online and into print in October, shows that journalists must guard their e-mail comments, industry leaders say.
But, while several editors agreed that the Journal incident highlights the need to handle any e-mail correspondence carefully, few have reacted to the situation with policy changes or warnings to staff.
"It's important to realize that an e-mail can be circulated anywhere and circulated quickly," warned Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe, who said he had discussed the dangers of e-mail opinions with his staff in the past, but made no new directives following the Journal incident. "You have to be especially careful in thinking through who might receive an e-mail."
Baron also pointed out that e-mails can be subpoenaed in lawsuits, giving even the most mild comment added significance if a libel case arises. That also goes for editors, he added, and "that means e-mails sent to the entire staff. It is not something we can control."
Tim Franklin, editor of The Sun in Baltimore, plans to discuss the issue with staff during a planned seminar on sourcing. "There is no question that everything we say is under scrutiny," he says. "We should have that discussion, but we have not had any policy changes."
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, said no extra advisory is necessary, as the Post's ethics policy covers it. "Our policy says they are not supposed to express any opinions in public about things they cover," Downie told E&P. "I expect (Post reporters) to be sophisticated enough to be aware of anything they put in print. You are a Washington Post reporter, not Joe Blow."
Asked whether this also applied to private emails, he replied: "I would expect that reporters would realize they would be covered by that."
But Tom Fiedler, editor of The Miami Herald, while urging caution for reporters using e-mail, stressed that private, home e-mail accounts are different than official, work accounts. "That, to me, is perfectly acceptable," he said about reporters offering opinions on stories in e-mail messages to friends and family from home accounts.
The latest controversy began after Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal's respected Middle East correspondent, sent an e-mail to about 20 friends and relatives in September while covering the war in Iraq. Among other things, the e-mail complained about the dangers to reporters, quoted Iraqis growing disillusioned with the U.S. effort, and stated frankly that despite "President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster." The letter found its way to the Web, then got print coverage, and was even cited in "Doonesbury" this week.
After reading the email, some observers felt Fassihi's credibility as an unbiased reporter was tarnished. Others asked why her blunt assessments could only appear in private and not in the pages of the Journal.
The incident also raised the issue of what, if anything, journalists can express in e-mail messages, even private ones sent from their personal accounts. Should reporters be able to say what they think of a source, a public official, or even a boss in an electronic note to friends? Or does the responsibility of an unbiased approach extend to the unguarded world of online communication?
Doug Clifton, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, noted that private e-mails from home accounts and work-related e-mails must be treated differently. "It is very situational," Clifton said. "If I have a City Hall reporter who sends an e-mail to his mother about what he thinks of Mayor Campbell, I don't see how you can stop that or should."
Margaret Sullivan, editor of The Buffalo (N.Y.) News, also urged careful consideration of the issue, saying, "There is a really large gray area about what you can tell people to do in their non-working time."
The New York Times has not taken any action as a result of the Journal incident, according to Times spokesman Toby Usnik. He pointed to a policy the paper instituted in 1999 that clearly warns staffers about not abusing their work e-mail accounts, but says nothing about private accounts.
"The confidentiality of any message should not be assumed," the policy warns. "Computer communications must be consistent with conventional standards of ethical and proper conduct, behavior and manners and are not to be used to create, forward or display any offensive or disruptive messages."
For other journalistic observers, however, the message was clear: Do not send e-mails you would not want some people to see.
"Maybe the lesson in all of this is that e-mail is not a secure enough place to do this," said Irwin Gratz, president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "It's a cautionary lesson. Reporters are going to have opinions on things. We are human beings. And they should have ways to express them. But there is no way to completely protect yourself."
Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, agreed. "Recognize that anything we express may have currency beyond what we intended," Steele told E&P. "There is a professional duty that is connected to the personal self. One should never assume that any communication is going to remain private."
But for Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA, reporters' rights need to be protected on this issue. "If newspapers are going to start to censor people in their private lives, that crosses the line," Foley said. "I understand that reporters need to take care so they have credibility. But, for goodness sake, because someone sends an e-mail to their friends, I am not going to punish them."