Last Sunday, The Boston Globe published a powerful front-page centerpiece story: “Dying on Lynda’s terms.”
It chronicled the story of Lynda Bluestein, a 76-year-old retired nurse who had terminal cancer. Unable to die by assisted suicide in her home state of Connecticut, Bluestein filed a lawsuit to be able to go to Vermont to have her life ended there. She died by assisted suicide on Jan. 4.
Noted columnist Kevin Cullen reported the Globe story, which features touching photos by Jessica Rinaldi, for months. It is well told — a heart-wrenching and impactful read.
But a controversy has arisen over whether or not Cullen crossed journalistic lines by becoming too personally involved in the story. The Globe published a rather detailed and lengthy editor’s note that admitted Cullen stepped outside of journalistic ethics, but also defended the publication of the piece.
Here’s what happened.
Last July, Cullen was reporting on Bluestein while she was meeting with the doctor who was going to help her end her life. The doctor explained that Vermont law required Bluestein to get signatures from two people who would say she was in a clear state of mind when she made her decision. Furthermore, the signatures could not be from family members, beneficiaries or anyone associated with the doctor’s clinic.
Cullen wrote in his story that Bluestein asked a “Globe columnist” and an unaffiliated documentarian who also was chronicling her story to sign the form. The “Globe columnist” clearly was Cullen. He signed the form.
And therein lies the issue. Cullen signed the form that helped Bluestein to proceed with the plan to end her life.
In the editor’s note that accompanied the story, Globe executive editor Nancy Barnes wrote that Cullen “regrets” his decision to sign Bluestein’s form, adding, “It is a violation of Globe standards for a reporter to insert themselves into a story they are covering. That it was intended primarily as a gesture of consideration and courtesy does not alter that it was out of bounds.”
Barnes then added, “After reviewing these details, we have concluded that this error did not meaningfully impact the outcome of this story — Bluestein died on Jan. 4 and she likely would have found another signatory in the months before then. For that reason, we chose to publish this powerful story, which includes exceptional photojournalism, while also sharing these details in full transparency.”
Journalistically, this is a no-brainer. The Globe and Cullen should have let Bluestein find another signatory.
I asked my colleague Kelly McBride, Poynter’s senior vice president and chair of Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. McBride told me, “Wow. Talk about a conflict of interest. At the moment that Kevin signed that paper, his loyalties were divided. On the one hand, he wanted his story to progress. On the other hand, he was nudging it forward, directly intervening in the story so that it would progress. It would have been so much richer if he had kept his distance and documented her efforts to find a signer.
“And keep in mind,” McBride continued, “I’m not a purist on this. I’ve often argued that journalists shouldn’t be so rigid as to be cruel. Certainly they can offer sources in need food, water or other compassionate aid. While it might have made him uncomfortable, it was part of her journey and he should have had the patience to document it. Instead, he gave his readers a reason to question his loyalty. The subject of his story actually sued the state to gain the right to die there. Certainly she had the wherewithal to find independent acquaintances to attest to her mental well-being.”
The timing of the reporting and writing also might have played a role in the Globe’s decision to ultimately publish the story. Cullen signed Bluestein’s document in July. But it’s believed that senior editors, including Barnes, weren’t aware of that fact until months later — when Cullen turned in his story after Bluestein’s death in January.
Perhaps if Cullen’s involvement had been discovered by the Globe at the time he signed the form, the story would not have proceeded. But we will never know. Through email, Cullen declined to comment.
Cullen is a big name in Boston media. He was a part of the Globe team that won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and part of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning team that covered the Boston Marathon bombings. He has won numerous awards for his column writing. On the other hand, he was suspended for three months by the Globe in 2018 after a review found he fabricated details in comments he made publicly about the Boston Marathon bombings.
In an interview Tuesday, Barnes went beyond her editor’s note to explain the Globe’s decision to go forward with the story. She told me, “We considered the fact that Lynda and her family opened their homes to us, opened their lives, gave themselves to us for months on end, and trusted us with an incredible amount of access. So that weighed on us, too. … She trusted us to tell her story.”
Barnes continued, “In weighing all of these factors, we decided to share with the readers exactly what had happened, where the ethical boundaries were, the fact that we did weigh whether or not we could proceed with the story — I think that was clear from the note. We decided to share all of this with the readers, and trust the readers to weigh for themselves the value of the story and all of the complexities given what happened.”
Then Barnes said, “There was a human being here, who wanted her story told, and that was a fact that we wanted to take into consideration.”
Two things can be true at the same time: We can acknowledge that Cullen certainly crossed journalistic lines. He should not have signed the form. Even the Globe and Cullen don’t disagree.
But we can also acknowledge that Globe readers benefited from this compelling story and, more importantly, that it would have been a shame had the piece been dropped. The Globe essentially owed it to Bluestein and her family to publish their deeply personal story.
In the end, the decision by Barnes and the Globe to ultimately proceed with the story while being transparent about how it came together feels like the right one. It also should be noted that it was the Globe, through its editor’s note, that alerted readers to Cullen’s misstep.
Ultimately, it’s unfortunate that Cullen’s lapse in judgment is drawing more attention than what turned out to be an emotional, impactful and superb feature about a human being and the tragic, yet dignified final stages of her life.
What’s in a NYT byline?
The New York Times unveiled new and redesigned bio pages for their journalists, and they’re impressive.
In a statement, Times managing editor Marc Lacey and assistant managing editor Matt Ericson wrote, “The new format, which we call enhanced bios, was designed to bolster trust with readers by letting them know who we are and how we work. Research has shown that the more readers know about our reporters, the more likely they are to understand the rigors of our journalistic process and trust the results.”
So what does this new bio page look like?
Well, let’s use the page of Times reporter Brian M. Rosenthal as an example. It features Rosenthal’s photo, followed by his name and this: “I am an investigative reporter at The New York Times.”
Then there are three bolded subheads:
- What I cover
- My background
- Journalistic ethics
Below each, Rosenthal writes about each topic in his own words.
Under those are ways to contact Rosenthal, including email addresses and various social media handles.
The Times announcement said, “The bios also give us a chance to tell readers about our deep expertise. They might not know that our Supreme Court reporter used to be a First Amendment lawyer. Or that we have several architects who build 3-D models for our graphics presentations. Or that one of our health and wellness journalists holds a doctorate in experimental psychology. Or how one of our economics reporters writes his own code to analyze employment data.”
The Times also addressed one of the latest controversies in journalism: the use of artificial intelligence. The Times note said, “With the increasing prospect of more A.I.-generated content filling the internet, we want to address this head-on by emphasizing the people behind our work.”
Joy Reid, watch the language
What was Joy Reid thinking? The MSNBC prime-time host has been on TV long enough to know that she should watch her language even if she doesn’t think her microphone is on. Everyone in the business knows: If you’re on set and you’re wearing a mic, anything you say could get on the air.
Reid learned the hard way during her show Monday night when she dropped the baddest of words.
The show was doing a segment on proposed border legislation. Reid then tossed it to a video clip of President Joe Biden, who said, “If that bill were the law today, I’d shut down the border right now and fix it quickly. … And Congress needs to get it done.”
Suddenly and briefly, viewers heard Reid’s voice say, “Starting another (expletive) war,” and then laugh. Then her mic cut out again. It’s unclear exactly what she was talking about or referring to.
At the end of the show, Reid told viewers, “I was chatting during a clip that was playing and, you know, we try to keep this show very PG-13, so I just want to apologize to anyone who was listening to my behind-the-scenes chatter. I deeply, deeply apologize for that.”
Reid is fortunate this is the worst thing caught on a hot mic.
Marchand switches teams
Big sports media news. Andrew Marchand, who probably breaks more sports media news than anyone in the business and is quoted constantly in this newsletter, is leaving the New York Post for The Athletic.
A note from The New York Times, which owns The Athletic, called Marchand “a leading reporter at the intersection of sports media, television rights, talent and business for years.”
The Athletic already has an outstanding sports media writer and podcaster in Richard Deitsch. Marchand joining Deitsch gives The Athletic a formidable one-two punch.
Brady talks broadcasting
Tom Brady made the media rounds on Tuesday, talking about next football season when he becomes the lead NFL analyst for Fox Sports. The seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback sat out this season, but he has apparently been preparing for his job in the booth.
Brady was on Pat McAfee’s show Tuesday and said, “(I) spoke to a lot of broadcasters from this entire season, just learning from them, current broadcasters, ones that have done play-by-play, analysis. It’s been really fun.”
He added, “I connected with a lot of fun people, I got great notes. I could probably write a broadcasting playbook at this point. But it’s been something I’ve challenged myself, and I really look forward to get on there and calling games for Fox starting in September.”
Meanwhile, he also appeared on the “Front Office Sports Today” podcast and confirmed what most already guessed: He will be in the No. 1 booth with play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt.
Brady said, “I believe I can provide a pretty unique perspective that I think a lot of people will really like. It’s going to be a lot of hard work. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s always about challenging yourself to grow in different areas. And this is certainly one way that I’m doing it.”
On both shows, he praised the work of Greg Olsen, who has been the analyst alongside Burkhardt on Fox’s top NFL team. It’s likely Olsen will move to the network’s No. 2 booth with Brady coming in.
“Greg Olsen does an incredible job and I have so much respect for him,” Brady told McAfee.
- Last week, Puck’s Dylan Byers reported The Wall Street Journal was “about to make significant layoffs in its (Washington) D.C. bureau.” On Tuesday, Axios’ Sara Fischer wrote, “Wall Street Journal plans layoffs, restructuring in D.C.”
- For The Atlantic, former Washington Post media writer Paul Farhi with “Is American Journalism Headed Toward an ‘Extinction-Level Event’?”
- The Atlantic executive editor Adrienne LaFrance writes about Silicon Valley in “The Rise of Technoauthoritarianism.”
- Hector Becerra has been promoted to managing editor of the Los Angeles Times. This move comes after massive layoffs and leadership changes at the Times, including the departure of Kevin Merida as executive editor. Terry Tang, the editor of editorials, was named interim executive editor last week. Becerra has been at the Times for nearly 25 years. He becomes the highest-ranking Latino editor in Times history, according to the Times’ Meg James.
- From ABC Action News in the Tampa Bay area, Michael Paluska with “‘Where the real stories are being told’: Behind the lens with local news reporters.”
- The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg (and photos from Desiree Rios) with “An Atheist Chaplain and a Death Row Inmate’s Final Hours.”
- For New York Magazine, Caitlin Moscatello with “Inventing the perfect college applicant.”
- Terrific column by the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur: “Taylor Swift and the Super Bowl? It has to be a conspiracy.”
More resources for journalists
- The 2024 Poynter Journalism Prizes are now open for entries. To enter, go to the contest website. The deadline for entries is Feb. 16.
- Delve more deeply into your editing skills with Poynter ACES Intermediate Certificate in Editing. Start anytime.
- Transforming Local Crime Reporting Into Public Safety Journalism (Seminar) — Apply by Feb. 1.
- Empower your storytelling skills with Beat Academy 2024 (Webinar series) — Feb. 1-Sept. 26. Enroll now.
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at email@example.com.
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