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A Heartbreaker From Eichenwald And The Times

Anyone need a reminder that the New York Times is a great newspaper? Well, here you go: Kurt Eichenwald's heartbreaking story about a 13-year-old boy who got sucked into the world of online child pornography via his webcam. It began when someone offered Justin Berry $50 to take his shirt off, and from there escalated to the point where he was being paid thousands of dollars to have sex in front of the camera.

And that's just the beginning. The Times pulled out all the stops on the story: In addition to Eichenwald's lengthy story, they offer video of Eichenwald's interview with Berry, a story about the nature of Berry's customers (many work with children), a piece on how the web invigorated the child pornography trade, and, perhaps most fascinatingly, Eichenwald's reporter's essay that details the story behind the story.

It's a doozy. Eichenwald identified himself as a "fan" of Berry, not a reporter, and began an online conversation that went on for weeks; he then proposed that they meet in Los Angeles. There he identified himself as a reporter to Berry, who was shocked but agreed to speak to Eichenwald:

Over the next two days, I interviewed the person I now knew was Justin Berry. By then, I was aware that Justin was addicted to cocaine and marijuana. With no expectation that he would agree, I asked him to stop. I also urged Justin to quit responding to messages from his adult admirers. Justin agreed to both requests.

Today, he has a simple explanation for why he listened so readily. "I didn't want to die," he said. "The things I was involved in were horrible, but I could never find a way out. I wanted for it all to end so badly, so I was ready to do anything."

Days after the initial meeting, Justin called, sounding terribly upset. A man was visiting him who, I believed from our interview, had molested Justin in the past and had provided him drugs to keep him compliant. Given the situation, Times editors agreed to fly Justin from Bakersfield, Calif., to Dallas, where I could interview him while he worked through his drug withdrawal.

The strategy undertaken by Eichenwald, who consulted with his editors throughout the process, probably violated some of the standard conventions of the journalist-subject relationship, but I think even the most traditional journalism ethics professor would be hard pressed to make a case against him, in light of the larger picture. (Though a Romenesko reader asks: "What does [Poynter ethicist] Bob Steele make of this? Interesting ethical question.") The story is reminiscent of that which brought down Spokane mayor Jim West, a three-year investigation by the Spokesman-Review which detailed allegations of child molestation against the mayor, as well as allegations that he developed relationships with young men he met in chat rooms. The paper even hired a forensic computer consultant to pose as a teenager and exchange emails with West – emails which the paper posted online. The coverage kicked off an ethical debate in the journalism community. (You can read my interview with Spokesman-Review editor Steve Smith here.)