New York Times reporter Ali Watkins had a three-year relationship with Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe. That relationship has made the news because the New York Times reported that Watkins’ communications records were seized by the Justice Department during a government leak investigation. Now, the Times is reviewing Watkins’ work history.
Both the New York Times‘ policy and the Society of Professional Journalists advise against romantic relationships with sources, and if one occurs, to disclose it to superiors. The Times said Watkins told the newspaper’s editors about the past relationship after being hired but before starting her job.
“Federal prosecutors seized years’ worth of email and phone records” from Watkins because the Justice Department is trying to find out if Wolfe leaked classified information to her. The Times‘ own news story noted that Watkins found out about the seizure in February but didn’t tell the Times until this month after discussions with her lawyer.
In a follow-up story published June 12, the Times reported it is reviewing Watkins’ “work history.” In that story, the newspaper said:
“The Times said on Tuesday that it was conducting a review of Ms. Watkins’s involvement in the case, including the nature of her relationship with Mr. Wolfe, and what she disclosed about it to her prior employers. Ms. Watkins informed The Times about the prior relationship after she was hired by the paper, and before she began work in December. She has said that Mr. Wolfe did not provide her with information during the course of their relationship.”
Before being hired by the Times, Watkins worked for Politico and BuzzFeed. She worked for BuzzFeed News from 2015 to spring 2017. BuzzFeed provided iMediaEthics a statement from its editor-in-chief Ben Smith: “We’re deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.”
Politico, where Watkins worked from March to December 2017, told iMediaEthics Watkins wasn’t covering the committee that Wolfe worked on:
“Any time that a journalist’s ability to do their job is threatened in a manner such as this, it’s a major concern. Ms. Watkins’ primary beat during her short time at POLITICO was not the Senate Intelligence Committee, which we had two reporters covering, but national security and law enforcement, including topics relating to China, international spy games, and Cuba. Ms. Watkins did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure at POLITICO, but she was managed accordingly once that disclosure was made.”
Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told iMediaEthics by e-mail,
“Ali informed us prior to her starting work at The Times that she had a relationship with Wolfe, that had ended months prior. She also told us she did not inform us about the letter she received in February on the advice of her lawyer. We do have a policy about source relationships.”
That policy warns that romantic relationships with sources “would foster an appearance of partiality” so should be disclosed. The policy reads:
“Relationships with sources require the utmost in sound judgment and self discipline to prevent the fact or appearance of partiality. Cultivating sources is an essential skill, often practiced most effectively in informal settings outside of normal business hours. Yet staff members, especially those assigned to beats, must be sensitive that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance. And conversely staff members must be aware that sources are eager to win our good will for reasons of their own.
“Even though this topic defies hard and fast rules, it is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias. Staff members may see sources informally over a meal or drinks, but they must keep in mind the difference between legitimate business and personal friendship. A City Hall reporter who enjoys a weekly round of golf with a City Council member, for example, risks creating an appearance of coziness, even if they sometimes discuss business on the course. So does a reporter who joins a regular card game or is a familiar face in a corporation’s box seats or who spends weekends in the company of people he or she covers. Scrupulous practice requires that periodically we step back and take a hard look at whether we have drifted too close to sources we deal with regularly. The acid test of freedom from favoritism is the ability to maintain good working relationships with all parties to a dispute.
“Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster an appearance of partiality. Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict.”
In general, Society of Professional Journalists ethics chairman Andrew Seaman said, “As for relationships with sources, journalists just shouldn’t do it. If something develops, a journalist should talk to their editor to move off the story and to protect the integrity of the story.” The SPJ also pointed to its press statement saying it “strongly opposes” the seizure of Watkins’ records.
The Washington Post cited comments from the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics chairman Andrew Seaman and media ethicist Jane Kirtley about the case, with Seaman focusing on journalism ethics “not [being] used against journalists or news organizations in legal actions or proceedings,” and Kirtley calling the relationship “‘noise’ not substance.”
“It’s hard to act independently, to use the SPJ code’s words, if you are romantically involved with a source. But from a purely legal perspective, I don’t think it is relevant, based on what we know now,” Kirtley said.
iMediaEthics wrote to Watkins for more information.