: 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.

  • chuck

    I recall hearing from an astronaut that some reporters were trying to entrap the women into embarassing situations by posing as ordinary dates. Or so I seem to recall. It was long ago and the details have slipped my mind.

  • Jonathan

    To me it’s like journalists are acting like spies so they can bring “the man” down. But that’s like firemen acting like heroes so they can get recognition for their acts. That’s called selfishness the last time I checked. Or maybe it was hypocrisy. Either way, journalists are the ones who are getting stung.

  • derby

    Entrapment? No one tricked hizzoner into logging on to his computer. He did that of his own volition. No one tricked him into (allegedly) trading the trappings of office for sexual favors – he had all ready done that before. Anyone using the internet knows by now that who or what one encounters is always potentially fake and certainly cannot be relied upon to remain private.
    The paper here has merely continued the tradition of reporter’s going undercover to get a story.

  • I think the fine line comes to this: Was the Target predisposed to commit the criminal act? If it can be proven that the target has a history of commiting the alleged act then I wouldn’t think this to be entrapment. If the target has otherwise never exhibited a desire to perform the criminal act but was thus enticed to the act then he/she may have an argument for entrapment.
    In this particular case: If the reporter/s just wanted to out a gay mayor then this was a pretty smarmy way to do it. Being gay may be a political landmind but it is in no way against the law.
    On the other hand if they had some idea that he was both gay and had a history of pedophelia then a sting operation would be totally above board in my opinion. It would be like setting up a honeypot to trap hackers. It isn’t unethical – the mayor went looking and got caught. It could just have well been a police sting operation he stumbled into. See Operation Pin

  • Dan nails the distinction, from my non-legal perspective. It’s like the difference between a John requesting a “date” from the undercover cop and the cop asking a specific target for a “date.” I haven’t read deeply enough to judge which situation applies here, but I also agree there is a huge difference if the gay outing was done for its own political purposes (like that jerk in DC does) or if it was a side result of exposing criminal or ethical issues (like what happened in NJ).

  • Ben

    I’d like to point out that the Spokesman-Review actually had the computer expert pose as a “17 year old” which is under-age of consent.
    Thus it had nothing to do with the homosexual issues and everything with undercover sting ops for pedophilia. And iff I’m not mistaken, this is vigilant action then, since this is a law enforcement issue and should be left to law enforcement and not a corporate entity (be it media based or whomever).

  • Ah Jeff, you knew I’d be back. You practically baited me with the lede! (I joke.) First, I plead total ignorance in what I now realize is a widely-held view that journalists should never-ever lie, or maybe only if a life is in danger. I read that in a Bob Woodward interview. (Do possible acts of child molestation constitute a life in danger? Right, total stretch. Strike that.)
    I guess I grew up thinking there was institutional dishonesty/lying in government, business, media, well pretty much everything. Color me jaded. Now we excuse the executive branch (from our President down to a cop on foot patrol) for telling lies if it’s done in the interest of national security or public safety. That’s the cost of doing business with rogue nations and homeland criminals. So it’s okay to lie when protecting the public, but not when “informing” the public? Politicans lie to the press and public all the time but it’s not okay for the press to lie in unearthing a disturbing story about a politician? Damn, talk about a weighty advantage for our elected officials. If the newspaper was wrong in their investigation, there’s no story. Obviously the press should NEVER lie to their readers. They wasted money and hours on something that didn’t pan out and thankfully it’s not tax-payer money.
    Now Jeff, I’ve learned in the past you don’t like to deal in the hypothetical and you only go as far on an issue as stated in your original post. That’s fair. So I ask any others who may still be around in the comments, if you’re still reading this, some questions. It looks like there was reasonable evidence that this mayor was involved in illegal behavior, this wasn’t just a gay outing. Why didn’t the police do anything? If the police didn’t have the information, is it the newspaper’s obligation to inform them and ask them to investigate? (No one has a problem with the police doing a sting, right?)
    If you say the newspaper was wrong and yes they should have left it to the cops, I wholly understand the position that journalists can’t do detective work that allows the kind of lying we find acceptable for our police. (So citizens can be journalists, but journalists can’t be crime solvers. Hmm, are citizen arrests still enforceable? Nevermind.) I’m just a little uneasy with the notion that we can expect the police to always handle these matters appropriately. I assume there’s a chain of command in Spokane and police report to a chief who reports to the mayor. I think the past has shown you can’t always count on lower ranks to investigate their boss. So who’s job is it?
    I dunno, I admit I’m confused. Someone please enlighten me.

  • worrywart

    Jeff has definately jumped the shark on this one. There is no Hippocratic Oath for journalists… as evidenced by reading any national newspaper, magazine, or watching any network or cable news show. Is lying a worse sin in journalism than twisting and misrepresenting the facts to make people believe something that isn’t true>

  • Reasoning that if police or politicos do something then the press can do the same is specious. The police and the politicos have job descriptions which include quite a few things besides telling us a straight story, day in and day out. The press does not – delivering the straight story is all that it’s there to do. The press is not an amateur police force or an amateur government. When it plays at those jobs, it compromises its real function.

  • I still don’t get it B.D., that sounds very utopian. While we’re at it can we have world peace too? How are you so sure police and politicians aren’t compromising *their* real functions without you even knowing it? Who polices them? Ultimately we rely on a free press. The paper never lied to the *public*, just to a sicko politican. But maybe you have a point, I guess this mayor would have eventually turned himself in or the cops would have nabbed him after a couple more children were molested. If you’re comfortable with that, so am I.
    And not to get too historical or ridiculous but I guess the police and the government would have gotten around to busting that whole Watergate scandal wide open too if Woodward & Bernstein weren’t on the case.

  • “Imagine if every blogger out there tried to run a sting operation…”
    Or maybe bloggers aren’t journalists after all.

  • E Mastro

    stigation by the Sun-Times in Chicago, reporters opened a bar called the Mirage
    How did they get a Liquor License? They are tough to come by in my city (Philadelphia) That is where a lot of corruption cases occur. On another note- what the hell was the Sun-times budget?
    I am mixed about this issue- I like my newspapers exposing crooked politicians etc– but the idea of a highly biased reporter, story already written, nosing around my business is scary. Someone needs to set some standards.

  • Menlo Bob

    Funny how all forms of sexuality are now free of critical evaluation. Time was when newspaper’s thought the Catholic Church was wrong for protecting pedophiles. Now they’re the ones doing the protecting.