Undercover Journalism and Credibility

In a recent blog Joseph Michener brings up the ethical implications of undercover journalism.

The Society of Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics states that journalists should:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.

This position is exemplified in the Miami Herald’s code of ethics (to such an extent the first line is plagarised!):

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods, which can be important in very rare instances, should be explained as part of the story. Undercover methods must be approved by two levels of editors.

Some media organisations do support the practice of undercover journalism, as long as other means to obtain the information have been exhausted. However these guidelines are very much open to interpretation. Journalists using these practices need to consider the damage that can be done by using undercover reporting methods.

Firstly there is the ethical conundrum of whether the ends justifies the means. If a journalist uncovers information that needs to be brought to the attention of the public, does that therefore justify the clandestine methods used to obtain that information? The concern is that the deceit on the part of the journalist sullies the critical information that is uncovered. Does a journalist dampen his credibility through the use of lies and chicanery?

An article in the Columbia Journalism Review makes the point that the profession of journalism is already struggling for credibility. This has never been truer since the likes of Jason Blair, Jack Kelly and company were exposed. Recently the Spokesman-Review used undercover methods to entrap Mayor Jim West of Spokane. The paper had a computer expert pretend to be a minor and organise online a sexual liaison with West. This methodology was widely condemned. For instance, Dennis Ryerson, of the Philadelphia Enquirer noted:

that there were other ways to get information and “with everyone challenging our credibility, we have to think about how we represent ourselves when we pursue the truth.”

Secondly journalists are at risk of breaking the law in their surreptitious efforts to reveal scandal. In England a BBC reporter was arrested after undergoing police training for 20 months in order to investigate allegations of institutional racism in the police force. In the USA, ABC were sued by Food Lion when reporters lied on their employment applications during a story on the supermarket selling rotten meat. However the damagers awarded were only $2.

The insignificant amount of damages could almost imply a tacit acceptance of the techniques employed by ABC. In England another journalist was released after being arrested, after he was caught lying to attempt to get a job at Heathrow to investigate airport security. The prosecution dropped the case. “Judge Barrington Black said the Crown Prosecution Service's decision was ‘extremely realistic’, adding that subterfuge was acceptable in matters of public interest.”

Black's comments endorse the idea that it is acceptable to use undercover techniques when it is in the best interests of the public and there are no alternative ways to unearth the information. So while there are potential legal ramifications for undercover reporting, it seems there are some instances where the ends do justify the means. If the information revealed is in the public interest, then undercover journalism can be justified.

Undercover journalism should only be used after all other means have been exhausted. The reasoning behind the decision must be thoroughy explained in the resulting story. Undercover journalism can do huge harm to the credibility of journalists if it is used whimsically. In the current climate, this is credibility journalists can ill-afford to lose.

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