Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Liar, Liar

Is a journalist ever justified to use deceptive means to get a story? Why or why not? Please respond by 4 p.m., Wed., Feb. 24. Draw on Saltzman's chapter and our discussions in class to support your position.


Meg said...

I feel like this question will never be fully answered because I think people will always have their own interpretations of things. Before class I read the blog and thought about it a little, thinking that it makes sense that reporters sometimes have to use deceptive means in order to get a story. Like the examples used in the book, Nellie Bly exposing the inhumane conditions of an insane asylum, or Walter Cronkite exposing voter fraud, they all had reasonable means for using deceptive means. They wanted to expose the wrongdoings of others and inform the public of what was actually going on. I think most people would say that as long as the story was used to inform the public of unlawful or harmful practices going on, then reporters could be justified in using deceptiveness. However that of course raises another issue because what determines if a story meet the "requirements" for a reporter using deceptiveness. Most likely whoever is trying to report a story will justify themselves and say that they are within reason of using deceptiveness. This is what I came up with before class, however I began to really think about what was said during class. I really liked the comment (and correct me if I'm wrong) that Ben Bradlee from the Washington Post made about not awarding the Pulitzer to the newspaper in Chicago that year because of their deceptiveness. Yes the Chicago paper exposed a corrupt practice in the restaurant industry however the reporters themselves were deceptive in getting this information. I want to agree that in the end the positives outway the negatives when it comes to using deceptive means, as long as in the end it is what's best for informing the public good. However, Bradlee's statement just sticks with me in that I don't think it's best to go about praising these reporters if what they're doing is just as deceptive. The reporters want to expose how the public is being lied to by all of these companies, businesses, whatever....except the journalists are doing the exact same thing...being deceptive.

Alana Davis said...

The use of deceptive journalism, at least from what I have gathered from the history of all the early reporters who used it, seems to have become more publicity, less revealing of a truth that the public sees major interest in. I don't think that sounds right, but with such a lack of privacy nowadays, going undercover just for the heck of it seems like a waste. I do believe that some journalists can be justified when they resort to deceptive work, but those cases seem rare. I have to echo what Meg said as well about the question never being fully answered. I was literally sitting in class Monday and thinking, this whole undercover work is just like one giant circle of ethical problems that never comes to a halt. Basic human values and morals will always be in conflict.

There are journalists such as Nellie Bly is justified in my eyes, because she put herself in the situations that was causing many pain and harm. It is very utilitarian in that way, but I don't want to say I view all deceptive journalism like that. Because like we were talking about in class, the Record reporters seemed to believe they were doing the most good for the most amount of people. I find that hard to believe. I feel like they put that image out there, but I think they got caught up in a glamorous world the general public assumes journalists live in and ran with it. They, unlike Nellie Bly, were in no way justified to use deceptive journalism despite the idea that it was utilitarian in nature.

I can't agree with masquerading in cases like Saltzman's chapter illustrates. Despite Mr. Deeds being a movie, it's still a great example of just how far undercover work can do. What good is achieved by going undercover to follow around a celebrity or another public figure? It's trivial to me. Of course the public wants to know, but that seems like food for the growing ethical ignorance today has.

Also, I really liked Prof. Good's quote (not to be a suck up)about how deceptive journalism (primarily masquerading) assaults a person's privacy and dignity and violates basic human trust. Shattering someone you may or may not grow attached to in the duration of your undercover work seems like too much emotional and physical guilt to deal with. But then again, some journalists lack that ability and go forth anyway for the story. I just really cannot come to a definitive conclusion on this matter. The world loves undercover work that results in a great story and the ethical dilemmas that go along with it. That will never change.

Kim Plummer said...

I think that deception in journalism is only justified when there are no other means to get the story. (And, even then, reporters should feel hesitant to use it and should really evaluate the ethical dilemma of the situation by using something like the Potter Box or some other model for ethical problem solving.) Deception shouldn’t be used to get a story because it’s fast, easy, or cool because it gets you laid at Big Nell’s. When a reporter even considers deceiving others to get a story, its use should be more thought out, and more argued against than it is argued for.

I agree very much with the arguments that Saltzman addresses in his chapter. I guess I always knew in my gut that deception was wrong, something just always felt sketchy and wrong about it. Saltzman proves that this feeling is justified, because it’s an unethical practice, not only in our day to day interactions with each other, but especially in journalism, where we practice truth-telling at a professionally recognized level.

Deception works against the most fundamental element of journalism, to seek truth and report it. I think it means more than just getting the truth, it implies you should also be getting it in an honest way. The truth of the matter becomes tarnished when you get it through unethical means.

I think the use of deception in journalism is justified when it’s the absolute only way to get the story. I think of it similarly to the way I think anonymous sources should be used, only when all other means have been exhausted. Deception chips away at the credibility of a paper and the professional status of a journalist, so it should really only be used sparingly. I think deception works against a journalist and his/her news organization more than it works for them when its used often and thoughtlessly.

Kim Dubin said...

This question got me thinking about all our discussions in class and how we talk about deceptiveness in journalism. I don't think it is ever justifiable to use deceptive means to get a story, because one way or another something will come back in the end of it. Whether its being looked down upon by coworkers or by the public.
When we were speaking about the journalists that bought their own bar in order to see how people who do inspections or others accept money as a bribe for keeping a place open, it was very deceptive. Eventually they didn't win the gold medal they wanted to win and they were looked down upon since they did something deceptive in order to uncover corrupt ways of people who were close to officials.
It's just very interesting to think about these things from the journalists point of view as well. They just want to get the story and in some cases would do anything to get a story. Like in Never been kissed, which I think was briefly mentioned. In this movie a young reporter goes undercover as a high school student again to get a story. In the end people find out, feelings get hurt, and she uses her own experience as the story anyway. Did that benefit her career most likely, which is the only reason I can say this could be justified. But still to do something deceptive to find the truth is ironic in a way. If your trying to uncover something that is deceitful and your doing it in a deceitful way... you might as well write a story on yourself. Two wrongs don't make a right. In a specific undercover assignment though, I suppose it can be justified but only based on how far the reporter will go with the investigating.

J.Rodriguez said...

In my personal opinion, I don't think a journalist is ever justified to use deceptive means to get a story. Not meaning that it doesn't happen though. As the beginning of the "saltzman chapter states; "most journalist become uncomfortable wheb discussing undercover journalism". It is compared to adultery, being deceptive. A journalist is supposed to be "accurate and fair" and in not doing so, you violate your obligation. I do feel like a journalist should do whatever possible in order to obtain a good story but without using deceptive techniques. Aren't we all taught as kids that it is bad to lie in order to get what we want? Yet it would be ok for a journalist to do it to get a story? If that is the case then I'm confused. You can't do something bad in order to get something good in my opinion. That is just wrong. Its funny when I read kims response because she mentions "never been kissed" and I was thinking of that movie because it was braught up in class. The reposrter (Drew Berrymore) disguised herself as a student to get the story she was looking for. Even though it made for a little funny movie, I felt like she went aout it the wrong way because she basically just stole the story. She felt like she wasn't going to get her story unless she used deceptive means. All in all, I don't think its ever justified for a journalist to use deceptive means in order to get a story

MBachmann said...

This is such a hard question to answer because there is never going to be a right or wrong answer since all situations are different. It is true that stated in the text "deceptive behavior is in direct conflict with the journalism's obligation to be accurate and fair, to try to tell the truth as the facts dictate." By active, passive or masquerading deception, they all are forms of lyings where the reporter is not telling the whole truth. I also agree with Professor Good that this is assaulting a persons privacy and violating their trust. But I also can agree that there are certain cases where you are not going to get to the bottom of the story unless there is some form of deception on the journalists part. The Society of Professional Journalists have come up with guidelines that are supposed to justify deception although I don't think deception is ever the right thing to do. Even though it may be the last resort and what you have to do, I don't think it ever right. The text in the end almost makes it seem like it is justifiable to do. "The future of this kind of investigative reporting, the last resort of the crusading journalist and the last hope for the public's right to know, could fade if undercover journalism is rejected completely." There really is no right or wrong answer because it is so difficult to reach a conclusion. Even the SPJ can not come up with the right or wrong answer since they made guidelines to when being deceptive is okay. I guess in the end it just comes down to the fact of your morals vs the importance of the story you are trying to uncover.

Chelsea LaDue said...

This question, I feel, has no right or wrong answer. As stated in the code of ethics, journalists should "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." However, what can we say what is vital or not vital to the public. The reporter who does the deceiving will always say they did it for the greater good. But does this mean it's ok to lie and sometimes break the law just to get the story? Aren't reporters basically saying they are above the law, or that they are trying to be detectives by going under cover to expose things that the police are supposed to be exposing? I've always thought, before taking this class, it was the norm for reporters to go under cover to reveal wrongs in places like insane asylum's and whore houses. But since reading Saltzman's chapter and discussing it in class I've come to realize that there better be a very good reason for this deception. There are times when I think that going under cover is ok, like when Nellie Bly went to the insane asylum to expose the inhumane conditions. She did not harm anyone in the process, and she helped the greater good by exposing the asylum. Yes, she lied about who she was, but as long as she exhausted all other means like the code of ethics says, I don't see it as a problem.
It is times like in Mr. Deeds that it becomes a problem. When someone goes undercover, like Babe Bennett, to get a tabloid story, it is not acceptable. She hurt Deeds in the process and the stories she got out of it did nothing for the greater good. They were simply for entertainment.
As I stated before, in my opinion, there is no yes or no answer to this question. It's situational.

Samantha said...

I think there are some cases in which deception can be justified when uncovering a story. However, I think they are few and far between. Deception has become too accepted a means of getting to the bottom of stories because it seems faster, easier and more exciting than doing actual journalistic reporting. The Code of Ethics suggests, because it cannot mandate, that reporters should "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." The reporters who uncovered Big Nell's did not exhaust all other options and jumped right into deception, this is not an ethical practice. However, if they had tried going to the police, tried interviewing "Johns" and tried some actual reporting techniques (including avoiding sleeping with a prostitute) then maybe their actions can be viewed as ethical and justifiable. Other reporters have done so, such as Nellie Bly who posed as an insane woman to uncover the treatment of patients in Insane Asylums. Had she tried interviewing the guards they probably would have denied any mistreatment and patients diagnosed with insanity are not always credible sources. I don't know if she exhausted any other options, like a disgruntled worker, but it seems that she did what she had to do in order to notify the public.

I think a lot of people are influenced by television and movies where undercover reporting seems glamorous and always has a happy ending. However, that is not reality and reporters and editors should be wary when deciding to go undercover and make sure that every single option has been exhausted and that the story is in fact important enough to the public that it needs to be uncovered through deceptive means.

pspengeman said...

Yeah, I echo the notion that this question is essentially unanswerable, that one must think situationally to come to a fair conclusion.

Applying the code of ethics to deciding whether or not to resort to deceptive journalism is ideal, and not realistic. If only all journalists had the code imprinted in their decision making, it would make for a simpler debate. But like police officers, the law, whether it be federal or moral, is up to the journalist's discretion. In other words, responsibility when concerning deceptive journalism is up to the journalist, and it is unfortunate that individuals can't always be trusted.

When we study a case like Big Nell's, we see the overwhelming evidence that resorting to deceptive journalism was immoral, unnecessary, and wrong. However, had the journalists, editors, and pretty much every party involved been more ethical, the whole issue could've been avoided.

I don't know, I think a flexible question like this truly depends on the morality of the person making such a decision. Unfortunately, you can't have a 100% approval rate of moral journalists, but more effort should be put into the whole system which prevents journalists and editors such as the ones involved in the case of Big Nell's from getting in a position of publication power.

Lindsey said...

A journalist’s job is to seek truth and report it and dealing with this question here, I think of the two kinds of deception that we discussed in class on Monday. The first kind of deception we talked about in class was active deception, which is where people impersonate others. The other kind of deception is called passive deception. Passive deception is when we allow people to assume things, basically not telling them the whole truth or saying anything to make them believe something different. When thinking about this question I thought there might be two sides of it. When reading the chapter and hearing about Nellie Bly letting out the poor conditions at the insane asylum, it seems like that is a reasonable way to use deceptive means to get a story. She was trying to let everyone know how bad it really was there, which was doing the greater good for the greatest number of people. My other view on deception has to do with the situation at Big Nell’s. I believe going undercover there, (active deception) wasn’t right. Some people in class believed that it was helping out the greater good for the greatest amount of people, but I think they just wanted to get a story out. As we have said in the last blog, they could have done it many other ways, which I still think they should have. I believe that after reading the chapter and thinking about what has been said in class, deception should only be used depending on a situation. An example of this is when a reporter should tell the truth or keep the persons privacy. It really depends on the situation.

DevonP said...

As the journalism code of ethics details, journalists should only use deceptive means under extreme conditions. They should exhaust all other means before going undercover. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. A journalist should find as much information as possible by presenting themselves as journalists. In the chapter Saltzman describes "passive" deception, where someone reveals their identity only if asked. I think a journalist should do that before they try the two other, active deception, and masquerading. Those are two methods that really should only be used to un-cover a life changing event for a massive amount of people. Like a country going to war for un just reasons. It should not be used to snoop around in a entertainers private life, for example, Like in Mr. Deeds.

Julia said...

I think the Society of Professional Journalists has it right. Their guidelines seem both ethical and reasonable. Basically, undercover reporting can only be justified when there is no other possible way to get the story and the story is one that will have a positive impact on many that are experiencing grave injustice. Journalist who go undercover for gossip or entertainment related stories are just wrong, since those types of stories don't stand for anything. Undercover reporting should also not be used to harm someone that doesn't deserve a tainted name, as in the Mr.Deeds Goes to Town example. "Do no harm" is one of the Journalist's Codes of Ethics so to cause someone unnecessary harm is not ethical at all. This said, I do see the necessity of undercover journalism. If an undercover story exposes the terrible conditions of a hospital and the patients are helped and those in the wrong punished, then I believe that is ethical. Babe Bennett's situation is not ethical at all.

Victoria said...

I believe that deceptive journalism is a catch 22. It is a unethical way to retrieve facts, but in some circumstances it is the only way to uncover the truth. I believe that the different levels of deception each have different levels of wrong. Active deception is the worse than passive deception, because you are actually pretending to be someone you are not, rather than failing to mention that you are a journalist.

As the code of ethics states, you should not use deceptive ways to get facts unless their is no other possible way to uncover the truth. I believe that deceptive means should not be used unless for an important story, that is newsworthy. It should not be used for entertainment value, as seen in Saltzman's chapter. These means should only be used if there is no other way to get the truth out.

A journalists main duty is to seek the truth and report it. If what a journalist is reporting can be life changing and do a great good to the public, then all means to uncover it should be utilized. Journalists should not take advantage of this power and they should only use deception when completely necessary. This power can not be abused, and it is abused when it is used not as a last resort, but as a choice. I feel that many journalists that use these means do so because they know they can and want to abuse their power. By abusing this they are not only not doing a service to the public, they are also loosing their credibility.

JustinMcCarthy said...

In practically all circumstances, I would say it is not justified to use deceptive means to get a story.
However, there are certain situations where I feel deceptive means would be appropriate. Such a situation would have to be one where the good that would come out of the deception is paramount and also, that there is no other way to atain it.
It isn't good to use deceptive means commonly. They should be employed only for extreme situations.
For example, I am not opposed to the means that are used on the television show "To Catch a Predator," in which a team lures pedophiles to a house where a young, underage boy or girl supposedly waits. The house is rigged with cameras and police are waiting around the corner.
Because I feel that child molestation is a serious problem, I have no ethical issues with deceiving the people who show up to the house.
This, however, is an extreme case and the good that will come out of the deception is much greater than the good that will come out of most deceptive means in journalism.

SSDP said...


Benjamin Bradlee’s quote is what really made me think about what it means to be deceptive: “When cops pose as newspapermen, we get goddamn sore. Quite properly so. So how can we pose as something we’re not?” (61). Thinking about this example made me upset. I imagined all the things that I would be willing to tell a reporter, but would sooner leave the country than tell a cop.
It would have to be a very serious situation for me to find it ethically OK for a reporter to deceive. It would have to be a situation where there were NO other alternatives, and all possible alternatives had already been exhausted. It would also need to be a situation that would help a significant number of people who wouldn’t be able to solve their problem without the help of the press, and/or the help of an undercover reporter.
When there is a large amount of helpless people suffering, then going undercover might be excusable. What the Chicago Sun-Times did with their Mirage Bar did not fit this criterion. Though the public officials were acting in a way that could affect everyone in the city, they did not cause anyone pain or suffering, and the people who were affected were far from helpless. Upton Sinclair and Nellie Bly’s work, on the other hand, saved very large numbers of people from real, significant suffering.
I believe that the only ethical principle that can be applied to undercover deception is Utilitarianism. How utilitarian the deception actually is matters, and should fall in line with the criteria that I have outlined. Kant’s categorical imperative would also work in some situations, but it is risky to make a universal rule based on an ethically questionable act. Upton Sinclair would have created the following universal rule, according to Kant: “When there is a monopoly of production and it is well known that said production costs the health and lives of thousands of helpless people as well as the economic abuse of a certain market, but there is no way to get the whole story except by infiltrating the system, you may deceive people to go undercover.” This is a universal rule which I can live with. If the Chicago-Sun Times had created a universal rule with the Mirage Bar, there would be chaos.
But we should still keep in mind that there is ALWAYS a way to get at least part of the story without deceiving anyone. C.E. Russell, for instance (thanks Miraldi) did a fair amount of exposé on the Meat Packing conglomerate without resorting to undercover work, which he did not approve of (because he ruled). He preferred to work extra hard in order to save his ethical credibility.

KHutchinson said...

The way the book answers this question really makes the most sense to me.
Even though it is true that lying to get to the truth undermines the truth entirety, there is a time and place that the deceit can be used properly. I agree with the book that undercover journalism should only be employed as a last resort, after exhausting all other opportunities to obtain information.
I think the least offensive form of deception would be passive because there is never an active lie in progress. People make assumptions, and although reporters do feed off of these assumptions, the fact that they never outright lie somehow makes it seem a bit less terrible than active deception or masquerading as someone you are not. Even so, I would never say that the other two forms of deception should never be used.
I'd say that there is a large bit of a utilitarian view involved with undercover journalism. For the greater good. An unjustice that directly and heavily impacts the population may require a bit of deceit in obtaining information, but I feel as though as long as there is no entrapment involved, there is just cause for deceiving people.
I think what they did at the Mirage was not a good example of undercover journalism, and it crossed many lines for the sheer fact that instead of going undercover into another world, they created their own and created the unjusts themselves, only to profit from the story later. I feel like this is much different than if they had gotten corroborating stories from a few good sources and did more digging. I find it hard to believe that setting up their own sting operation was the only way to gather information about dirty city officials. This is more police work than journalism...there IS a line.
I think that undercover journalism is not ok when the motivation is to "bust a story wide open" because they want to sell issues and make money. There has to be a GREATER good involved. If uncovering a child pornography ring means lying to an affiliate of sed ring, it's justifiable because the drive stems from wanting to bust the people involved, and get child pornography off the streets and off the internet.
Stories like these, that when uncovered make a system or group change for the better, seem to me, ok to use undercover journalism, but again like I said, only when it is the last possible option.

Maxim Alter said...

I feel like using deceptive means in order to get a story is ONLY APPROPRIATE when you have no other way of getting it. Also, the ends that you are trying to achieve better be worth it. Ethical decisions really depend on the situation at hand. Every ethical decision I make, especially if it is going to be as paramount as having to disguise myself, is thought out prior to my acting. So, if there were innocent people being harmed and the only way for me to prove it was to disguise myself, then I would probably do it.

In Saltzman's chapter and in our class discussions, deception is obviously deemed an unethical practice and I agree. It isn't right to lie like that. Especially in Journalism, where the ultimate goal and the first code of ethics is to seek the truth. I mean, how hypocritical is it if you are seeking the truth through lies.

However, I feel like the situation isn't alway so clean cut. Like Justin said, the show "to catch a predator" is a perfect example. This is a real dilemma for me. I never want to use lies to obtain information. I know that I am better than that and i can be a better journalist than that. I will always exhaust every other option I have before turning to that.

Andrew Limbong said...

The usage of deceptive means in order to gain a story is a cheap ploy to attain an audience. This can be seen by the amount of movies that Saltzman gives that depicts journalists going undercover to unravel some sort of plot. It'd be a lie to say it wasn't entertaining, but it's also a bit ridiculous to say it's professional (good/ethical) journalism. We're taught at a young age that "two wrongs don't make a right," and after all these years, there is a great deal of truth to that statement. As stated before, lying to uncover lying is just more lying.

There is a plethora of better and more ethical means of gaining information. In the two versions of Mr.Deeds, an interesting interview would've been enough to gain an honest and truthful look into both of the Mr.Deeds. Instead, active deception was used to create a more interesting story. It's Shattered Glass all over again.

Are there times when deception is necessary? There might be, in order to uncover some sort of seedy truth. But consider Hunter S. Thompson. He was upfront about his being a journalist when he went into the depths of the Hell's Angels to get a story. He may be a gray figure when it comes to ethics, but he was honest to the Hell's Angels. If he can do that, I don't know why Inside Edition/Hard Copy/etc., can't be honest to uncover their stories.

Sarah Boalt said...

Deceptive journalism is a tricky subject. A reporter's first duty is to report the truth, but it would be hypocritical for them to get the truth by lying. I think that all other means should be completely exhausted before a journalist uses deceptive means. I feel like a journalist should hold true to their own ideals. It could also turn a lot of people off to learn that the reporter herself was lying when she's the one pointing a finger. It is also something that can ruin someone's life when done needlessly. In Mr. Deeds, the reporter goes undercover to get a sensational story and boost her own career. The she realizes what she's actually doing to a good man and tries to stop, but the story has already blown up.

Deceptive journalism is something that should only be used in extreme circumstances. If there is an issue that is really affecting people's lives negatively, it is true that something should be done. When it is for the true greater good of the people, deceptive journalism is an option when everything else has already been done to try to get the story. The people have every right to be informed and they should be, but they should be able to have the same trust in the story that they have in the reporter.

Allison said...

I agree that there is no right or wrong answer if whether or not journalist should or should not deceive in order to uncover a story. I would say if any deception should be used, it would be passive deception. Not disclosing who you are or why you are there is not an outright lie but more of a dodge of the facts. Active deception is more of a sticky topic. I feel that it may be used in rare situations, depending on the story that’s being investigated. In the Big Nell’s case the active deception that was carried out was used for the wrong reasons. As discussed in class, the reporters could have taken steps to obtain information before caring out their undercover investigation. Talking to the police, or waiting outside of Big Nell’s to interview those who were leaving any of which could have given them the information for their story. I believe that a utilitarian approach was the motivation for this type of deception, for the publication to become a hero of sorts; but in the end more harm was caused than good. If a reporter feels that they can deal with the consequences of their deception, and if there story is worth a possible lawsuit, than they should go for it. it’s the choice of that reporter to take on a that type of project.

Chanel Arias said...

I agree with Saltzman when he says that undercover journalism is necessary at times when it deals with the welfare of the public, rather than going undercover for trivial situations that hold no significant importance. According to Saltzman a lot of journalists agree that undercover journalism should be saved for the very last resort. I fully agree with that as well. But it seems that although many people do agree that undercover journalism can be saved as a last resort, some journalists may prematurely come to the conclusion that it is the last resort, when it really is not. The use of deceit through undercover journalism can be avoided with creative thinking and commitment.It seems that most, if not all journalists are smart enough to realize this, but when the competitive aspect of journalism kicks in, many somehow forget.

eden rose said...

First of all sorry for the lateness of this post but I haven’t had Internet until this evening. Secondly I think that this question is hard to respond to because there are so many different types of situations that people use deceptive means in the journalism world. Although my gut feeling is to say NO its never justified to use deceptive means to get a story my mind also plays devils advocate and says that YES there are times were its “okay”. In the examples of Mr. deeds I don’t think that there was a real justified reason to be and undercover reporter, yes I understand why she did it but I don’t think that it was justified. The fact that she was just looking for basically gossip about this person who inherited money didn’t really affect the public in any direct way. I think that if there is an issue that is really controversial and needs to be exposed then deception is more justified. I don’t think that there is ever a time where I’d say GO UNDERCOVER AND DECIEVE PEOPLE but I definitely think that there are more justified reasons that others. I don’t think that its okay to deceive people because although you are getting the story you still aren’t doing it truthfully and people can be getting hurt or thrown under the bus without even knowing it. Deception is one of those issues in the journalism world that will always be present and I think unless there is some written rule fully against it people are always going to find loop holes to get there story whether they do it in a truthful way or not.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates

The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.

Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.