By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Poynter’s Tom Jones renders a nuanced verdict on Kevin Cullen’s ethical lapse

Poynter media columnist Tom Jones has weighed in with a lengthy commentary about Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen’s decision to sign a legally required form that a terminally ill woman needed in order to proceed with her physician-assisted suicide — a story that he was reporting on, and that was published by the Globe last Friday.

Jones’ conclusion is reasonable, and it’s helped me think through my own conflicted beliefs about what has unfolded. Jones’ bottom line: Cullen committed a serious breach of ethics in going along with Lynda Bluestein’s request, which I’m sure we can all agree on; and Globe executive editor Nancy Barnes made the right call in publishing the story anyway and appending a detailed editor’s note to it. Jones writes:

Two things can be true at the same time: We can acknowledge that Cullen certainly crossed journalistic lines. He should not have signed the form. Even the Globe and Cullen don’t disagree.

But we can also acknowledge that Globe readers benefited from this compelling story and, more importantly, that it would have been a shame had the piece been dropped. The Globe essentially owed it to Bluestein and her family to publish their deeply personal story.

I’m think I agree, but what a mess. Sadly, Cullen’s lapse of judgment has cast a pall over the story, which features not just strong reporting and writing by Cullen but also vibrant photography by Pulitzer Prize winner Jessica Rinaldi. What should have been a triumph of narrative storytelling and photojournalism that helped our understanding of a difficult topic has instead turned into a case study of journalistic ethics. After all, one of the four principles of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is “Act Independently.” The code explains: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

One question I’ve had from the start is when Barnes found out about Cullen’s actions. According to the Globe, Bluestein asked Cullen and a member of a documentary film crew to sign the document last August; Bluestein died Jan. 4. Without citing a source, Jones writes that “it’s believed that senior editors, including Barnes, weren’t aware of that fact until months later — when Cullen turned in his story after Bluestein’s death in January.”

Cullen declined Jones’ request for comment, but Barnes talked with him, saying in part: “We considered the fact that Lynda and her family opened their homes to us, opened their lives, gave themselves to us for months on end, and trusted us with an incredible amount of access. So that weighed on us, too.… She trusted us to tell her story.”

What makes the entire situation especially fraught is that Cullen was suspended for three months in 2018 after it was learned that he’d made up details in public comments — but not in his work for the Globe — about his involvement in covering the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Cullen has been a welcome voice in the Globe for many years, but all any of us can say about this latest ethical lapse is: What could he have been thinking?

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5 Comments

  1. Mary Helen Gillespie

    Why was Andrea Estes fired but Cullen is still on the Globe dime?

    • Dan Kennedy

      We don’t really know why Estes was fired, or at least we don’t know the full story. I wish we did.

  2. King Kaufman

    I’m sure this is an unpopular opinion among my fellow journalists but I think he was thinking “I’m a human being.” I’m uncomfortable with using the term ethics when what we’re really talking about is professional practices.

    The professional practice is not to become “involved” with the story. This is to maintain objectivity or distance. I don’t agree with a strict devotion to this practice, though in most cases, with most stories, it is a good one. But it’s mostly a business practice: We must *appear* objective. (“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”) There’s a lot of good, ethical journalism that’s not objective. It’s just harder to advertise against.

    When it is fully disclosed, and doesn’t materially alter the story, as the Globe notes it didn’t in this case, I don’t think some great harm is done. Sometimes, it’s ethical to materially alter the story. If pulling a guy out of a burning car changes your story from “Man killed in car fire” to “Man injured in car fire,” pull him out of the damn car.

    • Dan Kennedy

      I wouldn’t describe the issue at play here as objectivity. It’s independence. And though Lynda Bluestein surely would have found someone else to sign the form, as Barnes argues, Cullen made it easier for Ms. Bluestein to end her life — and he was writing about it. Not a hard call for Cullen. A much harder call for Barnes.

  3. Jeff Hansell

    While it’s clear that Kevin Cullen should not have signed that form, I wonder how other journalists would’ve acted had they been in his specific situation in real time.

    I would bet that most journalists would have done exactly what Kevin Cullen did, especially after spending such an extended period of time with someone going through the most emotionally and physically fraught time of her life.

    Kevin Cullen acted like a human being.
    The Globe took the right action by being transparent about what Cullen did.
    And, that’s all that was needed.

    It’s all too easy for people with an elevated sense of themselves as journalists who believe they serve a “higher purpose” to hand down glib judgments on their colleagues.

    There’s no higher purpose in life than to serve others, and that’s all Cullen did.

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