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Public Editor Calls Out Jodi Kantor for Teens-on-Facebook Flap

Three Times editors say Kantor made the wrong call when she emailed teenage students looking for "advice about a story" on Cindy McCain.

Public Editor Clark Hoyt's Sunday Week in Reviewcolumn dealtwith the controversy over reporter Jodi Kantor, coauthored a hostile profile of Cindy McCain for the October 18 edition. Afterward the McCain campaign revealed one way Kantor tried to put the piece together - by trolling Facebook for classmates of McCain's teen-age daughter.


Hoyt wrote:


Not long before the election, The Times published an unflattering front-page profile of Cindy McCain, inspiring a new round of accusations that the newspaper was biased against her husband. Some critics were especially angry about one of the reporting tactics: Trying to find sources for information about Mrs. McCain, a reporter reached out to 16- and 17-year-olds through Facebook, the social networking site.


Although the reporter, Jodi Kantor, said in a message to the teenagers that she was "just seeking some fellow parents who can talk about what Mrs. McCain is like," people I heard from thought it was wrong. "Disgusting," said Gwilym McGrew of Woodland Hills, Calif. "Will she be contacting my 12-year-old soon, too?"


....


Kantor said she messaged students at three private schools, trying to find out if the McCains' 16-year-old daughter, Bridget, attended one of them. She said she wanted to interview parents who knew Cindy McCain as a normal part of reporting on someone who might become the first lady. "I've talked to parents at the Obamas' kids' schools," she said.


In her message to "eight or nine" students, Kantor identified herself as a Times reporter and said, "I'd love to ask you some advice about a story." She asked for parents and "anyone else I should talk to - basically anyone who has encountered Mrs. McCain and might be able to share impressions." Kantor told me that she would never have quoted the teenagers themselves.


The message got to blogger Ed Morrissey at Hot Air, and controversy ensued. Hoyt got two Times editors on the record as disapproving of Kantor's actions.


Times editors said they wished that Kantor had consulted with them before contacting the teens. Richard Stevenson, the editor in charge of campaign coverage, said, "As a parent, I would probably not have responded well if one of my kids had gotten a question like that from any adult, much less a reporter."


Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said he would have suggested that Kantor not send the message. He has since drafted a new guideline that says approaching minors to ask about private lives "is a particularly sensitive area" and "may not be advisable." It requires prior consultation with him.


After defending Kantor somewhat for finding "creative ways around the public relations shield" surrounding Cindy McCain, Hoyt ruled against her tactics as well:


Still, I would not have sent them. Reporters need to be especially wary of seeking out minors without the knowledge of their parents. When breaking news is involved, that is not always possible, but that was not the case here. If Kantor wanted to speak with adults, she could have contacted the schools; she did call one, and there was no response. Or she could have located individual faculty members or found the parents of the students she had identified on Facebook.