The question of deception

One of the basic canons of journalistic ethics is that a reporter and news organization should not use deception to gather information.

The question of deception has arisen and provoked sharp discussion in the last couple of weeks with the expose the Spokane Spokesman-Review ran on Mayor Jim West. The newspaper had information alleging that West – a conservative Republican who had repeatedly shown hostility to gays and gay rights – had been using gay Internet chat rooms to hook up with other males.

To confirm that information, the newspaper hired a computer expert to pose as a gay man and try to make contact with the mayor in a gay chat room. The method worked, and the Spokesman-Review ran a series on the mayor’s secret gay life. Editor Stephen Smith also explained how the newspaper had obtained the story.

The story and Smith’s explanation has set off a storm of controversy within journalistic circles.

Joe Strupp, in an article for Editor and Publisher (link no longer works), quotes a number of editors, some of whom come close to saying they were never allow the use of deception in their reporting:

Tim Franklin, editor of the Baltimore Sun: “It is important that sources be aware that they are dealing with journalists. It is not something that I feel comfortable with. This is a form of undercover journalism that, thankfully, went out of vogue in the early 1980’s.”

Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis: “Fundamentally, you don’t misrepresent who you are. That is a problem.”

Amanda Bennett, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I don’t permit deception; I would not allow it. We go into reporting in a straighter way. We are not private investigators, we are journalists. Undercover is a method of the past.”

Spokane’s editor Smith has explained the newspaper’s decision in a number of places, in addition to his own newspaper. The following is part of his explanation in an editor’s note that was published on the day the first stories about the scandal ran:

This is not a story about sexual orientation. This is a story about alleged sexual abuse of children and misuse of power and authority. Using the trappings of office to lure and groom young sex partners, barely of legal age, is the public’s business whether those potential partners are men or women. West is the city’s second strong mayor, a powerful political force, the face of our city whose secret life could open him to blackmail or extortion attempts and compromise his ability to do his job.

. . . the newspaper hired a forensic computer expert to anonymously engage West in online chats on Gay.com and pose as a young man. The expert, a former U.S. Customs Service agent who has helped law enforcement agencies identify pedophiles online, was hired to confirm that West was the man behind several online identities and to confirm the accounts of the real men. Under ordinary circumstances, the newspaper would not use a fictional scenario in pursuit of a news story. But the seriousness of the allegations and the need for specific computer forensic skills overrode our general reluctance.

Despite the disapproval of the editors quoted above (and many others not quoted), the Spokane public has apparently accepted and approved the way the newspaper handled the story. Smith reported that his phone calls, letters and emails were heavily in favor of what the newspaper did. And lately, quite a few journalists have come to the newspaper’s defense.

No one argues that deception is a good reporting technique or that it should be used on a regular basis. Deception casts a shadow on the information that is gathered and on the news organization that uses it.

But deception has its place.

In the 1970s, the Chicago Sun-Times opened a bar and outfitted it cameras and tape records and caught a number of city officials who were trying to shake down the new owners. The series of articles the newspaper produced shook city hall (and sent some people to jail), but it did not win a Pulitzer Prize – because, according to the Pulitzer committee, the newspaper had used deceptive reporting techniques.

Let’s hope this year’s Pulitzer committee takes a broader view.

The general prohibition on deception that many journalists subscribe to is not absolute. In fact, it is sanctioned to some degree in the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists:

• 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.

That sounds exactly like what the Spokane Spokesman-Review did.

Jim Stovall (Posted May 16, 2005)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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