Oregon Dean Stands By Eichenwald Ethics Award After Source Payment

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The dean of the University of Oregon’s journalism school is standing by an ethics award to a reporter who gave $2,000 to a teenage Internet pornographer who eventually was the central figure in a New York Times article.

Last year, reporter Kurt Eichenwald was given one of the school’s Payne awards for ethics in journalism.

The award cited Eichenwald and the Times for both reporting the story and for helping its 18-year-old subject escape the sex trade.

The Times published a note Tuesday acknowledging that Eichenwald had paid the youth, Justin Berry, $2,000 to gain his trust.
Eichenwald told The Associated Press he gave Berry the money to learn his identity and to help save the teenager but asked for it back when he decided to write about him. Eichenwald said the money eventually was returned by the youth’s grandmother. He said he should have told his editors, but it slipped his mind.

Many journalism organizations bar paying sources.

Tim Gleason, the journalism dean and one of the Payne judges, said the newspaper did right to publish the acknowledgment, and Eichenwald should have disclosed it at the time.

But, Gleason said, “It does not appear that it is an act that in any way undermines the fundamental integrity of the story.”

In publishing Eichenwald’s story, the Times made extensive disclosures of the help given to Berry.

It was the act of preserving the integrity of the story, “the ethical obligation of the journalist,” while at the same time helping Berry, “the ethical obligation of all human beings,” that led to the award, Gleason said.

“They successfully did both,” he said.

Editor Mark Zusman of the Willamette Week newspaper, also a Payne judge, said he had been impressed by the transparency Eichenwald and the Times displayed.

But, Zusman said, the disclosure Tuesday means “it was more like translucent.” And Zusman said Eichenwald’s explanation of his motives in paying the $2,000 doesn’t wash.

“I wouldn’t support a rescinding of the award,” Zusman said, “but at the same time it is troubling.”
Nine journalists, academics and news executives judged the awards, one of which also went to the Spokane Spokesman-Review in Washington state for an investigation of the city’s mayor, which included an online “sting” it conducted to track the mayor’s online activities in a gay chat room.

Many of the Payne judges are likely to be on the panel for 2007, and the Eichenwald story is likely to be discussed, Gleason said.

“I don’t think we’ll discuss it in the context of taking away an award,” he said. “I don’t believe that is at all on the table.”

The award was established in 1999 by Seattle broadcast executive Ancil Payne, who died in 2004.

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