: A few weeks ago, I slapped down a journalism student who tried to sting Gawker with a false report. I said this violated the prime directive of journalism: Tell the truth. Don’t lie.
Now that the Spokane Spokesman-Review has stung the town’s mayor with someone acting like a studlette online to entrap the politiican. And Editor & Publisher asked a lot of newspapaper editors whether they approve of such deception. They don’t.
In this age of transparency, acting like someone you’re not and lying is not the way to get the news.
Imagine if every blogger out there tried to run a sting operation on anyone else and published it on the internet. It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.
Is it ever OK to be less than transparent at every stage? Sure. A restaurant critic doesn’t reveal her identity when making a reservation. A consumer reporter can report an experience as a consumer without wearing a press badge. I don’t tell everyone that I’m going to blog what I blog.
In a legendary investigation by the Sun-Times in Chicago, reporters opened a bar called the Mirage and waited for city officials to demand bribes, which they did, of course. What’s the difference between that and what the Spokane sting? Well, the Mirage really was a bar, with real booze and real drunks. Is it different from what Spokane did? I’m still not sure. If they’d merely recorded everything that happened at someone else’s bar, would that have been different?
The lines get a bit fuzzy. But I do believe that entrapment, deception, and lying are not the best ways to get the news.
: UPDATE: Len Witt, subbing on PressThink, has an IM interview with Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith:
Witt: Okay. So letís put the journalists and ethicists aside for a moment. Do you think a story like this, and the way you did it, builds or hurts the publicís trust in the media?
Smith: Based on what we’re hearing from readers, it has built trust in our readers and Spokane citizens. They know what we wrote is true. Feedback is running 10- maybe 15-1 in our favor and those who don’t like what we did rarely reference the computer expert.
I think our credibility with journalists is hurt. But I think this may be a sign of how disconnected some editors are from the sensibilities of citizens who want their newspapers to watchdog government and do it aggressively.
Let me add quickly. I think the knee jerk reaction of journalists is “we don’t lie.” I agree. But all of our ethics codes, SPJ for example, and even the Poynter’s ethics specialists, allow for exceptions when there is no other way to get the info and the story is important enough. The feds are going after our mayor on official corruption charges as a result of our work.