When is it Okay to Lie to Get the Story?

Journalism is all about finding and reporting the truth. And historically, to get to the truth, some journalists have resorted to telling lies. The history of yellow journalism, muckraking, and investigative journalism is filled with stories of reporters going to all lengths to get the scoop.

Renowned journalist Nellie Bly famously feigned insanity to gain access to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum just so she could report on the deplorable conditions experienced by its patients. A sting operation set up by the Chicago Sun-Times led to a series of reports about corruption and scandal that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize until the ethical questions surrounding the tactics used became a distraction. And just in the last few days we’ve been made aware of a clandestine attempt by Project Veritas to expose biased reporting on the part of the Washington Post newspaper.

What all of these incidents have in common is the use of deception to gain access to secret information with the goal of exposing corruption and outing bad characters. Where they differ is motive and outcome. In the case of the latest attempted sting, the target actually came out on top…and from all appearances was the party on the side of truth. While previous undercover investigations by Project Veritas may have exposed crooked dealings and bad characters, it appears this time that the Washington Post was vindicated and the undercover Project Veritas “reporter” exposed as the unethical party.

While the history of journalism has plenty of examples both of favorable and unfavorable outcomes when deception is part of the reporting strategy, there seems to be growing unease with the practice. An excellent piece by Jack Shafer at Politico includes this warning…

But if the press starts sanctioning the telling of lies and staging scenarios to get stories, what’s the next step? Wiretapping? Break-ins? Extortion? The employment of call girls? Other assorted dirty tricks? All of these methods would reap rich results, but at a cost that’s morally prohibitive.

Sometimes you just have to play by the rules and hope that the good guys win in the end. And regarding the rules, there actually are a list of ethical guidelines that have been developed to ensure that journalistic deception, when absolutely necessary, doesn’t go off the rails. Again, Jack Shafer writing at Politico

Even the high priests of journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute allow for pure deception, high misrepresentation and hidden cameras in reporting. The circumstance must be isolated; the information gathered must be profound; all other alternatives must have been exhausted; the journalists must be willing to disclose their deceptions and justify them; and the harm prevented by the scoop must outweigh the harm caused by the deception.

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