Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Pushing Past 'No': The New York Times and Journalistic Ethics

I read this article from New York Times reporter Graham Bowley, which details his attempts to interview Sahar Gul, a fifteen-year old Afghani girl who was tortured by her husband and in-laws after refusing to go into prostitution. I was interested in The New York Times coverage of this horrifying incident, but was shocked with Bowley's reporting. What follows is the subsequent letter I wrote to the editor:

To the Editor:
I was dismayed to read Graham Bowley's (“In One Girl’s Story, a Test of Women’s Rights in Afghanistan”, January 10, 2012) article describing his interview with Sahar Gul, the Afghan teenager who was the victim of gruesome abuse by her husband and in-laws. I believe the manner in which Mr. Bowley attempted to gain access to Ms. Gul while she was recovering in the hospital is unprofessional and unethical. Yet, The New York Times felt it was appropriate to publish these details. He took great pride describing how he “pushed past ‘no’” when hospital workers repeatedly told him that Ms. Gul did not wish to speak to reporters because she was too emotionally fragile to revisit her story. Mr. Bowley notes that Ms. Gul had already been interviewed by another news organization (the Associated Press), and therefore, the goal of disseminating her story with a broader audience—indeed, an important goal for journalism—was already achieved. However, Mr. Bowley’s persistence in interviewing Ms. Gul seemed to be more of an attempt to advance his professional career rather than to share an important story with the world. I see no need for a The New York Times reporter to subject a child to a additional questions and potentially retraumatize her in the process just to enhance a newspaper’s credibility. There is nothing to be gained in this process, and journalists such as Mr. Bowley must remember that they have an ethical responsibility when reporting in volatile settings such as Afghanistan.

Bree Akesson

I shortly received the following response from The New York Times public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, who "works outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper and receives and answers questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about articles published in the paper":

Thanks for your message about Graham Bowley's coverage of Sahar Gul, the young Afghan girl. I am concerned about the girl's privacy as well and have raised the question with the Foreign Desk. I do concur that news organizations should be careful to respect the privacy of crime victims. This is a case where, I believe, the benefits of doing a story were outweighed by the potential harm to the girl.


Art Brisbane
public editor

Arthur Brisbane wrote an-ed piece about this topic, addressing many of the concerns in my letter (which reflected many other readers' views), along with a response from the foreign editor. You can view the article here.

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