Unethical outing?

Last week, we looked at coverage of a magazine article that exposed a pastor's participation in a group for men "struggling with same-sex attraction." At that point, I highlighted the good and bad sections of an Associated Press article that covered the fallout of the original article.

In the comments section of my post, tmatt included some links to gay journalists' criticism of the original Lavender piece by John Townsend.

For example, Michael R. Triplett of Re:Act asks whether a reporter would disclose something shared at a Narcotic Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

The other side of the ethics question is whether the story was so important it justified violating the confidentiality of the meeting and participants' expectations. In other words, was this the only way to get the story and is the story important enough to breach this ethical line.

To me, the answer is no. While you may not like what Brock says and stands for--and you may feel the same about what Courage stands for and does--there probably isn't a compelling enough reason to agree to confidentiality and then breach it.

In an unpublished letter to the Star-Tribune, Townsend expresses frustration that critics did not focus on his accompanying story about how he started attending the meetings and his concerns about how they work.

For some time, I had been fielding tips about psychological abuse in the St. Charles Borromeo group, including a participant who said he felt tempted to commit suicide. One victim took his complaint to various local media and was summarily rejected each time. So for me, it was clear that becoming an embedded whistleblower was the only option left. That way I could more accurately verify the truth than to write about it from the outside. To my mind, quite reasonable suspicion of real danger trumped confidentiality.

Jeff Strickler of the Star-Tribune and Elizabeth Jensen of The New York Times found many ethicists who found the reporting to be questionable, if not outright wrong. Rod Dreher called the piece "a disgusting act."

If this pastor had been outed in a Ted Haggard situation, fine. But for a reporter to infiltrate a confidential support group, where people who are struggling and hurting open up to each other under the umbrella of confidentiality, is utterly vile. I would feel exactly the same way if a crusading conservative reporter with an agenda infiltrated a pro-gay support group, outed people he saw there, and reported on their conversations. What this reporter and his magazine have done is monstrous and vengeful, and I hope prominent gay voices denounce it.

Additional criticism of the story's reporting came from Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan, who, during the 2008 election and beyond, seemed to be consumed with raising questions about whether Sarah Palin gave birth to Trig. In May, he wrote the following about the Elena Kagan rumors.

To put it another way: Is Obama actually going to use a Supreme Court nominee to advance the cause of the closet (as well as kill any court imposition of marriage equality)? And can we have a clear, factual statement as to the truth? In a free society in the 21st Century, it is not illegitimate to ask. And it is cowardly not to tell.

This time around, Sullivan thinks the Lavender story was a violation of basic ethics.

This story--about a gay journalist infiltrating a private therapy group in order to out and expose a conflicted minister--is just as disgusting a violation and should not have been published, in my view. Why? Because if a twelve-step group's confidentiality is violated, then all bets are off. No hypocrisy was involved.

After scanning several more articles, it looks like most journalists and pundits consider Lavender's reporting to be unethical. When reporters agree that something is confidential (think "off the record," "on background"), they follow those rules so that there can be room for anonymity when necessary.

Small groups, support groups, and therapy sessions seem especially common in religious circles, so this likely won't fade as an issue to consider for the future of reporting. Perhaps its time for editors to consider blatantly adding to their code of ethics something that addresses reporting on groups that rely on confidentiality.

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