Reporters who cover a beat need a network of sources to do their jobs effectively. The best reporters are the ones who have the best sources.
In that light, there are ethical guidelines for how reporters interact with sources, though not every employer has the same policies.
For instance, some news outlets forbid reporters from paying for information. Others are more than happy to do so. Every wonder how TMZ gets so many scoops on celebrities, for instance? It’s because the company is relatively willing to open its checkbook when it needs to.
Some rules are much more universal. For instance, becoming romantically involved with sources is a major ethical violation for journalists — especially if journalists don’t make employers aware of those relationships.
New York Times reporter Ali Watkins has created an ethical headache for her current employer, and it’s called into question the standards of some of her previous employers as well.
Even the Times itself, in a piece published Sunday, has described Watkins’ case as having “rattled the world of Washington journalists” and their relationships with their sources.
Everyone loved @AliWatkins because she was a reporter who could get scoops.
She misled editors in her newsroom about her personal relationship with a source.
Some are, confusingly, still coming to her rescue. https://t.co/OHp3vBuSBI
— Matthew Keys (@MatthewKeysLive) June 25, 2018
Watkins, 26, has admitted to having a three-year romantic relationship with James Wolfe, a man more than twice her age who worked as a senior aide to the House Intelligence Committee while Watkins was covering stories related to intelligence agencies for outlets such as McClatchy, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed News and Politico.
That same report by the Times unveiled another bombshell: After her relationship with Wolfe ended, Watkins briefly dated another staff member of the House Intelligence Committee.
While working for BuzzFeed in 2017, Watkins broke a story that former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page allegedly met with a Russian spy in 2013. That story prompted an investigation of Page that continues today.
Where did Watkins learn of Page’s meeting? In its investigation of who leaked word of Page’s meeting to the media, the FBI learned of the relationship between Wolfe and Watkins. The FBI’s indictment of Watkins found that he shared “tens of thousands of messages and phone calls” with someone identified only as Reporter No. 2 who, based on the indictment’s description of that individual, is almost certainly Watkins.
Wolfe, 57, was arrested June 7 and charged with lying to investigators about his contacts with Watkins and three other journalists. He has denied sharing any classified information or helping any reporters with leads.
BuzzFeed never included any references to Watkins’ relationship with a member of the same committee that was looking into Page. The Daily Caller reported June 8 it had spoke with editors at BuzzFeed, who confirmed they knew about Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe but never disclosed the relationship in any of her reporting because there was no direct evidence that information she may have received from Wolfe ever made its way into her reporting.
A report by the Times says Watkins told all of her previous employers the same thing — that she was dating someone involved in the intelligence community, but always claimed that person wasn’t a source.
Let’s just end being surprised at the levels of corruption in the government AND the media, and understand it’s woven into the very fabric of who and what they are https://t.co/SXiwr6Jg1q
— Curt Schilling (@gehrig38) June 26, 2018
Watkins joined the Times in December. The paper says when she was being interviewed for the position, those responsible for her hiring “did not feel her past relationships should be a barrier to hiring her, because Ms. Watkins said that Mr. Wolfe had not been a source during their relationship, and because she would not be covering the Senate Intelligence Committee.”
In February, however, the FBI notified Watkins it had seized some of her email and phone records in its investigation of Wolfe. The Times reports that Watkins didn’t tell her employer about the seizure until nearly four months later, when the paper was working on a story about Wolfe’s arrest.
Watkins has not had a story published by the Times since June 3. The paper says Watkins has been on vacation. Three weeks is a long vacation for a new employee, which has fueled speculation that she may facing disciplinary action or even termination.
The New York Times is a favorite target of conservatives, but the paper deserves credit for taking an in-depth look at one of its own employees and the ethical concerns raised by her behavior. Her previous employers should be doing some soul searching as well about what they knew about Watkins, what they suspected, and why they didn’t look into the relationship further and what their reader should have been told.
The media’s constant attack on the Trump administration has raised a number of questions about how news is covered and reported. Watkins has given critics of the media something else that warrants a closer look.
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