The New York Times violated ethics in reporting on Comet Ping Pong
© Flickr user Elizabeth Murphy

The advent and spread of “fake news” is an important story, especially when it threatens public safety.

However, when investigative journalists speak with vulnerable witnesses in criminal cases, such as when they interact with recent arrestees, they have an obligation according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, to “[b]alance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.”

Last week, reporter Adam Goldman and The New York Times violated this basic tenet of journalistic integrity procuring the story, “The Comet Ping Pong Gunman Answer’s Our Reporter’s Questions.”

You see the “Comet Ping Pong Gunman” is, despite the sensational nickname, an unremarkable, deeply troubled 28-year-old by the name of Edgar M. Welch; Welch is currently in big-time, remarkable legal trouble.

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According to police reports, Welch was duped by a false news story circulating online claiming the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria was harboring a child sex ring involving Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic Socialists of America endorses Sanders for president How to end the Electoral College and elect our next president by popular vote CNN town halls put network at center of Dem primary MORE; Welch told police he entered the establishment in downtown D.C. at three in the afternoon on a Sunday armed with a handgun and assault rifle (a rifle he fired inside of the pizzeria, fortunately injuring no one) in order to free the purported sex slaves.

A mere two days after Welch was charged in D.C. Superior Court with assault with a dangerous weapon and carrying a pistol without a license, Goldman “spoke with Mr. Welch by videoconference at an old hospital” where Welch was being detained.

Goldman’s column, published by the New York Times just a day later, notes Welch “was cautious when speaking about what happened, sometimes citing advice he had received from his lawyer.”

Nevertheless, despite the fact police reports alone indicate to even the casual observer (much less an experienced reporter at a prestigious news organization) that Welch is grappling with mental health issues, Goldman pressed on.

Goldman wrote: “In his first news media interview since his arrest, Mr. Welch appeared downcast and at times distracted as he answered questions for 45 minutes, the maximum time allowed by the jail.”

I won’t rehash all of the insipid details Goldman’s story includes about Welch (such as, “Mr. Welch likes to read,” or that he “like[s] the outdoors”). Nor, as a matter of ethics, will I repeat the admissions Welch confessed to Goldman concerning his actions at the pizzeria. Already they’ve been disturbingly published in Goldman's middling story for the New York Times and multiple other cannibalizing news outlets.

Not only are Welch’s admissions to Goldman about his recent criminal conduct  (and the mundane details of his private life) all over the internet, most disturbingly, they are artillery prosecuting authorities can use against Welch in later proceedings, including bond hearings, trial (or more likely, a plea), sentencing, and potentially, civil commitment proceedings that could result in Welch’s prolonged, indefinite detention.

As outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists (a leading voice on the subject of journalistic standards and ethics), adopted by the Center for Investigative Reporting, “reporters should strive to minimize harm.” 

They are supposed to: “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects."

They are admonished: "Pursuit of a news story is not a license for arrogance. Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves[.] Only an overriding need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy. Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

Goldman and his employer, The New York Times, violated each and every one of these principles in their story on Welch.

If you have integrity as a journalist and as a news organization, you don’t casually make an appointment at a correctional facility to probe – and to exploit – a psychologically compromised recent arrestee without his attorney present. (On twitter, Goldman preened: “I called and made an appointment. It wasn’t complicated.”)

I’ve been critical of The Times’ coverage on criminal justice issues already this year. But last week, their lackadaisical respect for privacy and the basic constitutional rights of a vulnerable person reached a new, more disturbing low.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter @SteveCooperEsq


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