Saturday, September 14, 2013

Is This an Ethical Lead? Seriously

The Great Seal of the State of New Jersey.
The Great Seal of the State of New Jersey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s 8:35 a.m., and I’m naked in Barbara Buono’s bathroom. If you haven’t heard of Barbara Buono, don’t worry—you are not alone. Buono is the Democratic nominee for governor of New Jersey, but she is being almost comically overshadowed by her Republican opponent, Chris Christie—the savvily obnoxious, wildly popular governor who in several weeks is expected to annihilate Buono at the polls by 20 points or more, and then, presumably, focus on running for president in 2016.
So what am I doing naked in the guest bathroom of a gubernatorial candidate? (The bathroom, like the rest of her home, is tasteful, if unremarkable: butterfly prints on the wall, a boombox on the sink.) A few days earlier I had interviewed Buono for the first time. Having heard that the 60-year-old state senator kept up a rigorous exercise routine, I asked if I could go jogging with her. Rather than demur or laugh it off, she agreed without hesitation. And so, on a muggy Tuesday morning in late August, we ran five miles near Buono’s Metuchen, New Jersey, house—for the record, she is in fantastic shape—and afterward I asked if I could wash my face. Hospitably she told me to go ahead and take a shower.
It’s possible that, in agreeing to run with me—to say nothing of letting me bathe in her home—Buono was just being a good sport and humoring a pain-in-the-ass reporter, but she may also have had other incentives. One is that her opponent is famously obese, and going on a run with a reporter may have struck her as an easy-enough opportunity to highlight their contrasting levels of physical fitness. (In the interest of balance, I asked Christie’s press secretary, Kevin Roberts, if the governor might be up for a jog. “We’ll have to see what the schedule looks like,” Roberts replied.) But the more likely explanation, I think, is the simpler one, and it’s also probably the reason Buono was willing to let me spend so much time with her over the course of several days last month: at this point, she needs just about any kind of media attention she can get.

The rest of the story.
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Haley Zaremba said...

I would say that generally speaking a misleading lede is not unethical, it's just a good tool for hooking readers. In this case, however, the lede could be damaging to the subject and her reputation if people make the assumption that she slept with a journalist and then don't finish the article. Or maybe they do, but they'll still associate her with the first image. I think that it's unfair to her.

Anonymous said...

I considered potter box-ing this whole scenario — but it's late, I can't find any pencils, and I also really, really hate the potter box.

So, my gut instinct is: I love this lead. It's hilarious and captivating and honest in more ways than one. And defending my gut instinct here, isn't honesty and truth one of the most concrete ethical principles (if that's a thing) a journalist can have? Seriously, if he hadn't told us he was naked in her bathroom, would that have been ethical to have left that out? Couldn't that be said to be 'protecting' her image in a way that seemed promote-y and campaign-y?

This dude's a reporter after all — not a campaign manager. And I get that the dilemma lies in the placement of this fact, but even then, he's still constructing a certain truth. At the end of the lead, he says that this political lady is simply trying to get the most media attention she can. Well, that may sound harsh in reading, but if that rings true, what better way to get attention than having a reporter start a story about you with the fact that he's standing naked in your bathroom?

I guess in that light, the reporter could be seen as a promoter, regardless, since he's giving the politician exactly what she wants: attention. (I mean I hate politics and any words surrounding it, so I sure wouldn't have read this story if it wasn't for the lead...and this blog.)

But on that note, thinking as a reader and not a reporter, I realize that this guy has gotten me to read an article about some potential governor who I do not care about or know about, simply with his placement of that fact. So, really, he's not promoting the politician, he's promoting himself as a reporter. And I say *snaps* for that guy. That's great. Whether placing your reputation as a reporter above the subject that you're reporting on is considered ethical is dubious. This guy did, however, get more people to read the story — people like me who couldn't care less about politics, normally — and in disseminating this information to more people, is really, in essence, contributing to the free flow of information and the overall greater good for the greatest amount of people.

Boom. Kant. Opinion complete.

Nick Z said...

The lead would be more interesting if the article included a photo...

Nick Z said...

The lead would be more interesting if the article included a photo...

....J.Michael Robertson said...

At Haley Z: I'm thinking the lede does no harm because readers *will* keep reading. Also, the read-between-the-lines message is true: This candidate is going to get crushed; therefore, who wants to read about her. Heck, you could argue this lede shows a certain loyalty to the subject in that it represents an effort to draw readers in and thus give exposure to the candidate that she would not otherwise get.

However, it really does seem to violate Aristotle's notion of the "middle way." It's over the top and may not serve the writer's career. It's kind of desperate, perhaps a failure of imagination. But this kind of frame places the ethical focus on the writer, on his loyalty to his own career.

At Allison. Don't quit the Potter Box. Not yet. It just wants to help. That said, you make a reasonable point. Simon of the Many Names is being "transparent" in that he's describing the interviewing process. And if it's a desperate lead, she is a desperate candidate. Perhaps it is *the greatest good for the greatest number*, that is, the candidate and writer. Would I hire this bad boy for an assignment? Yeah. He cuts through the fog. (Of course, he was writing for a publication as desperate to survive as the candidate.)

At Nick. I assume you mean a picture of the Sexy Beast himself? Here it is. Does this sway your opinion?