Do Promises Die when Sources Promised Die? Can Journalists Burn the Dead?

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Columbia Journalism Review questioned if source agreements die with the source. (Credit: CJR)

Columbia Journalism Review wondered “how common is it to burn dead sources?”‘

So far, both the Wall Street Journal and Fortune have reportedly “burned” an off-the-record agreement with a recently deceased source, Jerome York, according to CJR.

York, a director at Apple, died in March 2010, and shortly after that, the Wall Street Journal published months-old comments by him.  Just this week, Fortune reported comments from York — however, as CJR noted, Fortune owned up to “burning” him by publishing his off-the-record comments about Apple CEO Steve Jobs.  CJR doubted that York consented to publication of the off-the-record comments after his death.

CJR also questioned why Fortune didn’t publish the comments sooner since Fortune clearly viewed the agreement void last March.

“When you agree to go off the record, that doesn’t mean ‘off the record until I die’ — unless you negotiated it that way,” CJR opined. Likewise, the agreement between source and reporter doesn’t die with the person.

CJR cited New York Times reporter Micheline Maynard as an example of the correct approach to take in this situation.  Maynard tweeted that “Jerry York told others of us details about Steve Jobs’ illness.  To me, a promise is a promise.”

Meanwhile, TechCrunch criticized Maynard’s tweet, calling it hypocritical. According to TechCrunch, “Micheline Maynard actually outs her source in the process of saying she’d never out a source.”

But, as an example, TechCrunch cited Watergate as “the precedent for all of this.”

“[Bob] Woodward and [Carl] Bernstein insisted they would not reveal the identity of Deep Throat until he died or consented to have his identity revealed…It’s not clear with Watergate if that was something Mark Felt agreed to as Deep Throat.  If he did, the precedent is invalid.” [The point is also moot, as Felt “outed” himself just before his death].

Fortune’s Jan. 18 article (see here) reported York told Fortune that “Jobs also took an unpublicized flight to Switzerand to undergo an unusual radiological treatment at the University of Basil for neuroendocrine cancer.”

According to Fortune’s Doron Levin, “With York’s death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place.”

CJR brought up the issue in its March 26, 2010 report about the Wall Street Journal’s story quoting three-month-old comments by York.

“Did the paper break an off-the-record deal with York upon his death,” CJR asked, noting that York’s 2009 comments about being “disgusted” by Steve Jobs’ quiet “concealment” of health issues “would have been big news had the Journal reported it at the time, which leads us to ask why it didn’t.”

iMediaEthics is writing the Wall Street JournalFortune and York’s family for comment.

Hat Tip:

UPDATE: 1/24/2011 4:24 PM EST: Fortune’s public relations director Emily Edmonds responded to iMediaEthics’ e-mail inquiry.  She wrote:

“Doron and York had an agreement; the agreement is private but Doron is operating under the guidelines of what they had discussed. Fortune does not believe that the death of a source gives journalists the blanket right to publish previously off-the-record comments and that’s not the case here.”

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Do Promises Die when Sources Promised Die? Can Journalists Burn the Dead?

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