Tuesday, January 23, 2007

As a follow up to the post about the WashU student who got in to see Michael Devlin, I wanted to weigh in whether this was ethically acceptable or not. If this journalist had represented herself as a family member of Mr. Devlin, we would be outraged and rightly so. She posed as a friend, and "friend" is a very vague term. The holding cell's visiting policies were unfortunately more unclear than Devlin's lawyers would have liked.

We shouldn't be surprised that this lonely man, both in jail and out, had decided to allow a journalist posing as a "friend" to visit him. But the bottom line is that Mr. Devlin was able to choose who was allowed in to talk to him and who he offered information to. He showed an awareness of his choices by telling the journalist that he would not answer certain questions. This journalist exploited the lax policies of the holding facility, and even though the facility's rules were indeed insufficient to keep friends (in the broadest sense of the word) out, she did misrepresent herself.

The interview that resulted from the visits has made him more human to the reading public than he was prior to its publication, which may help him in the long run in his trial. But is it the journalist's right to decide what the public knows about this guy without the review of his lawyers? What if this interview ends up condemning him in court?

This goes back to another recent post about whether more openness and transparency makes journalists' ethically questionnable acts more acceptable to us. More openness is not always desirable; if the journalist is harming the subject (Mr. Devlin) then we need to take a closer look. Is Mr. Devlin able to make decisions about who he does and does not talk to? He sounds like a sane guy, but he also kidnapped two boys, possibly three.

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