3Qs: Debating the ethics of Rolling Stone’s controversial ‘El Chapo’ interview

wihbeyRolling Stone on Sat­urday pub­lished an article by Sean Penn that detailed the Oscar-​​winning actor and activist’s inter­ac­tions with noted drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Penn’s encounter with Guzmán, which occurred while Mexico’s most-​​wanted drug lord was on the run from author­i­ties, sparked a national debate about jour­nal­istic ethics. Jann Wenner, a founder of Rolling Stone, said the story was “a restate­ment of how good we are,” refer­ring to the publication’s efforts to recover from an embar­rassing retrac­tion of a dis­cred­ited story about the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia last year. John Wihbey, an assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism and new media at North­eastern, talks about the eth­ical con­duct of Penn and Rolling Stone and notes that some of the magazine’s most high-​​profile pieces in recent years “have been dogged by ques­tions about sourcing and ethics.”

Illustration by Erica Lewy

Was it appropriate—both legally and ethically—for Penn to conduct an interview with a criminal who was on the run from the authorities?

It is ethical from a journalistic standpoint to interview a criminal in hiding—or a reviled foreign leader, disgraced person in jail, etc. The moral or legal status of the subject isn’t the sole basis for making a journalism ethics judgment. Reporters bear witness to information that is of public interest. Were Guzman and his story in the public interest? Certainly. Of course, journalists should be concerned about being used for propaganda purposes. But in journalism, the remedy is to provide context, fact-check claims, and include contradictory or adversarial information along with the interview. The solution is not to pick and choose good guys and bad guys.

Of course, part of the confusion in the public conversation is that we’re talking about professional journalism standards in the context of a non-professional, Sean Penn, performing a news-gathering task. One unresolved dimension is that Sean Penn seems to have become aware that authorities were tracking him, and at that point he was literally playing a concrete role in an investigation, indeed in a kind of civil war. Some news reports suggest that his correspondence with Guzman provided leads for the Mexican authorities and led to his capture. It is not the journalist’s responsibility if sources are sloppy in their own communications or actions, but journalists should always avoid shaping the issues and situations they are attempting to cover. For me, it’s hard to fathom how Penn thought he could contact Guzman without the whole thing being tracked. We live in a post-Snowden world. We know the surveillance powers that exist.

What is your opinion about the decision by Rolling Stone to allow Guzman to review and approve what was ultimately published about him? Does it discredit the piece?

Yes, it is generally unacceptable to agree to prior approval. In my experience—and I think many reporters would agree—the interview takes on a very different character depending on the rules of engagement. An “on background” or “off the record” session produces a different tone and tenor; so too would one with a prior approval clause. It may also change the way a piece is written. I should say that a lot of what’s pejoratively called “access journalism” involves having long, off-the-record interviews, after which journalists may try to negotiate things being put back on the record. That practice always comes dangerously close to prior approval. And it’s done all the time in, for example, Washington, D.C.

One other thing I want to point out is that this ethics issue—which has gotten a lot of attention—is clouded by some of the particular details. Penn didn’t really get an “in-depth interview,” as he concedes in the piece, and so really the piece is a hybrid of a brief, friendly conversation, a cultural-political travelogue, and a persuasive essay. After his informal first visit, Penn was only able to submit questions remotely, which were edited into a pre-packaged video. Penn never got to cross-examine Guzman. So while the “prior approval” issue dramatizes the whole piece—it makes it sound like huge secrets were on the line for Rolling Stone—the functional impact of the interview rules may have been minimal. Guzman reportedly didn’t ask for changes. Of course not, as Penn was never able to challenge him on points of fact, so the information obtained was uncontested.

As a side note, it’s worth remembering that this issue of quote approval remains a live issue in more mundane reporting circumstances and continues to make life difficult for reporters. For example, it became a big deal in 2012 when the Romney and Obama campaigns tried to enforce such a rule.

Are there any areas where you think Penn’s reporting misses the mark, or are there issues that he failed to address?

I suspect many readers winced when Penn rather credulously floated the idea, and repeated the myth, that “El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.” I would like to see evidence presented for this claim that Guzman has a higher ethical code, or is more restrained in his use of organized lethal violence, than your average drug lord. It’s the stuff of movies and makes for a neat script. But whether or not it’s empirically true is unclear. It is important here, because Penn cites it to help justify the interview. Penn was not the ideal person for Rolling Stone to have as the interviewer and conduit for Guzman, given that his prior activism and celebrity status would inherently diminish the credibility of the interview. But his celebrity status facilitated access. We’ve seen celebrities enlisted as para-journalists recently in, for example, the series Years of Living Dangerously, about climate change. Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and others are field “correspondents.”

All of that said, if we judge this piece by the standards of what it really is—a bit of brilliant Hollywood theater blended with a legitimately dangerous fact-finding trip, and pumped up by a media outlet that enjoys stirring the pot—this is a “media” success, if not a success for professional reportorial journalism.

1 comment

  1. It seems to me that this is also crim­inal activity on Penn’s part. El Chapo was not only a wanted fugi­tive in Mexico but also in the US. He was about to be extra­dited the week of his escape. How is this not aiding and abbeting crim­inal activity? Con­cealing a felony,?Failure to report the loca­tion of an escaped mur­derer? If anyone besides Penn had done it, they would have been charged. How odd that we don’t see the larger impli­ca­tions with our own crim­inal justce system having a dif­ferent set of rules for the rich and famous in this dis­cus­sion of journalism.

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