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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A lesson in journalistic ethics

John Townsend, a reporter for the Minnesota-based GLBT magazine Lavender, got what a lot of journalists seek this week: national attention.

Townsend wrote a story that “outed” Rev. Tom Brock, a senior pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and an openly anti-gay commentator for the Christian radio station KKMS-AM.

Lavender sent Townsend undercover to cover a confidential 12-step program for gay men – including Brock – “struggling with chastity.” Townsend recounted the pastor’s confidential conversations at the support group in Lavender’s most recent cover story.

The story was published in the days leading up to the Twin Cities Pride Festival and was quickly picked up by gay-focused media outlets, mainstream publications and spread through the Web, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels.

Lavender should never be confused with a traditional newspaper in that it clearly advocates a specific point of view to a clearly-defined audience. Nevertheless, the magazine, like other media outlets facing today’s news environment, needs to find ways to stay relevant. This story generated a lot of clicks and views for Lavender at a time when eyes on a website are very valuable.

More importantly, the story highlights the growing ethical debate about the ways reporters or media outlets should search for news. Privacy – especially for public figures – no longer exists because people are able to record pictures, video and audio with the flip of a button. Private settings that used to be off-limits to reporters can often be swarming with citizen journalists with smartphones.

But the Lavender story takes this a significant step farther. For an advocate, the hypocrisy of a minister who links tornadoes to church votes is hard to stomach. Yet, the impact of what Lavender did to rectify this wrongdoing destroyed the confidentiality and viability of counseling services and support groups that exist to help people deal with personal challenges. Lavender’s effort to shame the pastor violated the secrecy and safety of these sacred places.

This is why there has been such a strong reaction from gay groups as well as other media types from the Star Tribune to the Poytner Institute to Gawker.com.

“Outing” the minister leading up to Pride Week may be immediately satisfying for advocates but may have potentially shattered the privacy for people who need it most. I can’t imagine any story that could justify this kind of outcome.