Sunday, July 5, 2009

Editors would do well to explain themselves

When I became editor of the Rocky Mountain News in the late '90s, my philosophy was that I would let our work speak for itself. I didn't see the value in explaining our decisions.

That changed quickly. And I think for the better.

The debate over the decision by Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, not to report the kidnapping in Afghanistan of his own reporter, David Rohde, is an example of the kind of case where it would be helpful for an editor to explain himself. It's not like Keller hasn't done so in other cases in the past.

The Times published an excellent column by Clark Hoyt, its ombudsman, sympathetic to Keller's thinking. But as good as the column was, it was written by a third party, not the person who had to make the excruciating decision to suppress information he would normally publish, going against the grain of the ethos of any good news organization, including his own. Keller has been interviewed by others, too. He certainly hasn't hidden from the topic. But there's nothing like hearing the unfiltered voice of the person in charge.

Look, unlike Kelly McBride, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute, I think Keller did the right thing in the Rohde case. She wrote in a blog post taking on Keller that she encourages leaders who take actions contrary to the larger principles of an organization simply to say, "We set aside our core values in the face of imminent consequences."

As if it were that simple. How can maintaining our own humanity be considered a lesser core value? But even if she's correct that that's what Keller did, if you're never prepared to set aside your "core values," why do you need a human being as an editor? An automaton could do the job just as well. Just follow the rules. No, sometimes the rules need to be broken. Saving a life is one of those cases.

An editor owes it to his staff to do anything in his power to save their life when they're in danger on an assignment for the newspaper. They have to know he has their back. (One of the reasons I was reluctant as editor of the Rocky to put reporters in harm's way half way around the world was that I knew I wouldn't be able to help them if they got in trouble.) To me, Keller's decision showed the humanity and commitment of the organization.

But there may be larger lessons in what the paper did. And it would be valuable for the paper's staff and readers to hear how this experience will affect its policies and thinking in the future, if at all. When members of the public or other organizations approach the paper now and ask it not to report something based on similar serious concerns or to remove information from its archive or web site that could be harmful to someone, will the paper approach listening to the request differently? We don't know.

Keller did what he thought best to save the life of a staff member. But he has left unanswered whether the Times will be open to others who ask it for the same consideration. That's why I think Keller should write about how what he did to help Rohde will affect the paper going forward.

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