Teaching Notes

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

Monday, October 4, 2010


Would Joe Saltzman approve of the reporting in the case "Undercover at Big Nell's"? Why or why not (draw on the assigned chapter for your answer)?

Your response is due Wednesday by 6 p.m. No exceptions.


Marietta Cerami said...

Using undercover reporting and deception in journalism is a very controversial issue in journalism ethics. There are many theories that can be applied to the debate of whether or not deception in reporting is acceptable. According to Joe Saltzman, there is a time and place for such activities and it depends on a case by case basis. When it comes to the welfare of the public or corruption within government and business, Saltzman would hold that going undercover is defendable, however there are guidelines. Saltzman makes mention of the regulations the Society of Professional Journalists have set. Some of the guidelines include that "the individuals involved and their news organizations apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of the time and funding needed to pursue the story fully" and "the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberate discussion in which they weigh the consequences... of the deception on those being deceived; the impact on journalistic credibility;... the legal implications of the action..." and so on. After reflecting on what the reporters did in the "Undercover at Big Nell's," story, I have trouble believing they thoughtfully considered those guidelines. How much expert planning could have gone into their project? The journalists went on the inside to investigate the night of the very same day they found out about proposed renewal project. Not to mention, one of the married reporters went all the way and slept with one of the prostitutes inside the brothel. I think that ought to put some of his journalistic credibility into question. I think Saltzman would disagree with what these reporters did because it gives credible undercover journalists a bad name. Even though in the end they saved taxpayer money and a historical site, they did not attempt to find any other truthful means of obtaining the story and were basically reckless in their practice.

beth said...

Joe Saltzman assesses that if a journalist's actions serve only "his or her personal, political, or financial gain, if the end result is not in the public interest, evil has won out." In the case of "Undercover at Big Nell's" it could be inferred that the journalists had the public interest solely in mind. However, it is more than likely that they did not. While in the end, Big Nell's was shut down -- a brothel closed and restoration funds put elsewhere -- the journalists were rash in their undercover, investigative work. I seriously doubt that it was completely necessary for one of the reporters to actually have sex with a prostitute. neither of the journalists' code of ethics are in line with the tenets set forth by the Society of Professional journalists. They certainly did not "weigh the consequences" of the deception they pursued. To me, their actions also make me question their credibility, not only as journalists, but simply as human beings. If one of them was willing to cheat on his wife with a prostitute in order to get a good clip then I think there is seriously something wrong with his personal moral code.

Other investigative methods could easily have been pursued. Collaboration with police, a less extreme take on undercover work, etc. Like Marietta said, the pair of journalists tarnish the media, make it appear dirty and unethical (which it often is). The journalists were pursuing personal gain, it seems to me, much more than working in the public interest. They saw a glamorous story that reminded them of the movies, and jumped at the opportunity. There was no pausing to think. They went to the brothel the night the news broke. Saltzman would certainly disapprove of such careless, selfish journalism, even if the public did benefit after the fact.

Samantha Minasi said...

I think Joe Saltzman would approve of the reporting in this case. Much of the chapter is movie examples, and strong opinions against undercover journalism by other individuals, but Joe Saltzman's personal opinion is this: "There should be, however, a place for undercover journalism in situations where the story is of importance to the public welfare."

Because the reporting at Big Nell's lead to the church being saved, and becoming a landmark, and preventing the taxpayers from funding the renovation of the brother, I think Saltzman would justify it as win the interest of "public welfare".

However the chapter also said, that Big Nell took a year-long prison sentence to avoid having to out her "municipal protectors". To me, in order for this story to be of "Vital public interest" (as the SPJ code requires) and worth the deception, the corrupt municipal protectors would have been exposed. Although the brothel itself is a crime, and wrong, the city officials who were in cahoots with Big Nell's are the worse criminals and more worthy of jail time, and exposure of their actions.

I also really agree with what Marietta pointed out, that the reporters went into the brother the same day they even got the tip on the story, with such little planning its hard to give credit for any sort of craftsmanship, or pure intentions. According to Saltzman, the amount of good accomplished needs to outweigh the hurt caused by deception to make it worth-while. I'd defiantly like to speak to the wives of the journalists who went to the brothel that night to asses whether a building, and Big Nell going to jail for a year was worth the deception or not.

Jonathan said...

I think that Joe Saltzman would have objected to the reporting in the case "Undercover at Big Nell's", but I dont think it would necessarily be because they set up the sting. Their intentions served public interest, and I guess in a backwards way they were trying to save the old church, but I feel like this story is a joke. I mean, at one point A. N. Romm includes the fact that one of the two (MARRIED) reporters actually had relations with the prostitute, it seems like this was written as an entertainment piece more than it was an actual article. I feel like the point of this article was more to try and clear the names of the journalists involved (while specifically stating that one of them bought a prostitute and that the newspaper paid for it) and less about informing the public. They didnt even talk anymore about saving the church or any attempt to move the restoration funds. If you ask me this was written as a self-serving article, and thats exactly what Joe Saltzman would be against.

Kevin said...

Joe Saltzman says undercover Journalism is deceptive and is therefore in direct conflict with journalist’s obligations to be fair and accurate. Although I believe there are two forms of deception like we were taught in class; active and passive, or in other words direct or indirect. Saltzman throws a third one in the mix “masquerading” but it’s very similar to passive deception. With the article “Undercover at Big Nell’s” I think its moral lesson lies somewhere in between active and passive. I think Saltzman wouldn’t disapprove because the journalists were pursuing it while keeping the public and taxpayers interest in mind. They weren’t doing it for their personal, political, or financial gain in my opinion. And just because it turned out to be a good sensational story doesn’t simply make it bad and immoral. I think the only time the journalist crossed the line was when one of them actually had sex with a prostitute. But other than that controversy, I think Saltzman would side with the journalist.

Kaitmint said...

I believe that Joe Saltzman would have approved of the initial intentions of the reporting case "Undercover at Big Nell's". The intentions of the report were to prove if the brothel was still in business, because in previous claims by the police the brothel was now closed and no longer in business. The reported jumped on the opportunity to find out if these statements were true. Based on how the story unfolded the reporters did their job well. The brothel was closed and the church that was to be demolished was saved. The illegal practice of prostitution was stopped.

These reporters did their job but one went too far. There was absolutely not reason for a married reporter to sleep with one of the women. There is definitely many other ways the situation could have been handled. By doing this he put his job and the newspaper's credibility in jeopardy.

In the chapter about Mr.Deed's the reporter in the movie puts herself in an ethical predicament. She disguises herself as a love interest to try and get any inside scoop she can on Deeds but breaks his trust by lying to his face. I think this situation is wrong an undercover job should never get to the point where the reporter is lying to the face of the person she or he is writing about. This manipulates the truth and then the reporter becomes part of the story buy getting too close.

Michelle P said...

Although Saltzman gives valid points for the opposition of investigative journalism in his chapter, he does appear to support it when it is not done for someone's personal, political or financial gain. I think he would approve of the way the reporters in the Big Nell story acted, posing as regular johns, but the mere fact that one of them "fully played out his role as client" is inappropriate. The reporters acted in the case of public interest, but didn't really set out to inform the public of anything. I agree with what Jonathan said- the more pertinent information about the church and restoration funds didn't really play a major role in the article.

bina fronda photography said...

Saltzman explains undercover reporting as a touchy subject. Technically, it is unethical because it is deceptive, however, at times, undercover reporting is necessary to obtain very important information. In the chapter, he explains the difference between going undercover in insane asylums to report how the patients were treated, verses a case like Mr. Deeds, where a reporter goes undercover just to get great headlines before the other papers do. For Saltzman, that is unethical, there is no great outcome from it, and no substantial truth.

In the case, " Undercover at Big Nell's," I personally do not think Saltzman would approve. Though the author admits that he did not demand that they go undercover, he still allowed them to passively deceive the workers at Big Nell's. They were able to save the other historical building, but deceived the workers at Big Nell's, resulting in one of the Madame's being imprisoned. I think that the investigation could have been performed in another way that did not jeopardize the reporter's lives and health.

Malcolm Harper said...

I believe that Joe Satzman would not approve of the type of reporting in the article because in the chapter he states " deceptions is a premeditated assault on a person's privacy and dignity and violates basic trust between human beings". The connotation derived from this statement is of a negative context as he believes human beings owe each other a certian amount of respect and privacy. I personally believe the reporting in this story was fine as it lead to the exposure of a corrupt system. The purpose of the press is to report the truth in society and this task is rather a daunting task as corrupt practecs tend to be complex. The journalist protected the public intrest with their actions which is a worth justification for their deception.

Jenn Von Willer said...

I don't think Saltzman would agree entirely that the “Undercover at Big Nell's” was worth the active deception.

But when he uses direct quotes from the SPJ Handbook, especially page 69, “When the information obtained is of

profound importance. It must be of vital public interest such as revealing great 'system failure' at the top levels or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.”

Harming prostitutes at Big Nell's was continuing because the taxpayers continued to pay for the renovation, or lack of, so corrupt crimes were still accepted. By exposing Big Nell's, the harm was minimized for both the troubled women and the unlucky taxpayers.

Deception has evolved from the early 19th Century examples of undercover journalism. What the Record did was nothing as extreme as Saltzman's analysis of Mr. Deeds. Who knows how much human interest this case really had. In this case, the Record reporters were subpoenaed and risked jail time. Unlike the stunt journalists before them, Saltzman may have questioned why the editor didn't give instructions to his reporters. However, he makes a point towards the end about how important real undercover journalism really is and agrees it shouldn't fade.

K. Carroll said...

I don’t believe Joe Saltzman would have approved of the reporting done in the “Undercover at Big Nell’s” because, even though it was done without any real malicious intent, it was still deceptive. The reporters acted first, without really thinking of the ethical ramifications of their actions, in an effort to expose injustice. They weren’t doing it to ruin the reputation of Big Nell’s (well, they were, but because they wanted to save the Church, not have the whore house fixed up with taxpayer’s money), but it still falls under Saltzman’s definition of wrongful deception. He feels that deception is a planned course of action, and violates basic human trust. The prostitutes honestly believed that the reporters were clients, which does in fact violate their trust. Their intentions were pure (the journalists), but their methods, while effect, were not.

Brianna McDonald said...

Undercover reporting brings about many ethical dilemmas and controversies. If done in an unethical manner using much more intended deception than necessary, it can get a journalist into a lot of trouble. In the case of Big Nell's, the reporters posed as clients for an illegal business, and one even reported to completely fulfill the role of the client. Although they broke a huge story, their actions were under scrutiny by the local authorities. Actually committing sexual acts with a prostitute is illegal, regardless of the situation.
Using deceptive strategies to uncover the corruption that existed in Newburgh was a good plan because the end justified the means. However, as Saltzman points out, it is only fair and just if the public's safety is the main concern. In the case of the reporter that played out his role as a client, there is a large amount of personal gain to be had from the experience.
All in all, I believe Saltzman would eventually come around to the journalists' actions and see that the ultimate result benefited the entire population of the town.

Zan Strumfeld said...

I don't believe Saltzman would have agreed with the reporting at Big Nell's. Although the initial ideas for the whore house were not intentionally deceptive, they were still deceptive. Like we discussed in class, there are two types of deceptions: Passive and Active. This would be more of a passive type of deception.
Undercover reporting can be extremely deceptive in most cases, usually depending on the measures taken in order to fulfill the duties. However, Saltzman states in the chapter that deception is premeditative assault on a person's privacy.
Although the workings at Big Nell's benefited the community, it still was such a deceptive approach that it could have been handled in a completely different matter.

AGRAPS said...

If I understand Joe Saltzman's opinion towards the validity of undercover journalism, I would imagine that he would support the disguise of the reporters in the Big Nell's case.

From the readings, I gather that any form of deception on the reporter's part is justifiable in the event that the results will ultimately expose the corruption of authority and assist the general public, so long as this method is used as a "last resort". Because the Big Nell's case was on behalf of the taxpayer's money, I would have to agree that such investigation was beneficial but I can not say that it was necessary, or that the reporters had no other alternative.

I agree with Samantha in regards to her comment about the "municipal protectors". I believe that Saltzman would argue that if a reporter is going to use a controversial technique in gaining the truth, then these names should have been found and disclosed to the public in order to say that their active deception was ethical.

"If the otherwise valuable codes of ethics newspapers are shaping or reshaping bar us in certain investigations from assuming the identity of a customer, then the watchdog becomes a pussycat." I think this final statement of the case encompasses the entire issue being debated. If it is in all cases unethical to deceive the "bad guys" for a certain truth, then the reporter (in some cases) may hit a brick wall. What if the truth were on the other side?

Brandon said...

Joe Saltzman describes the use of deception in reporting as a touchy subject,neither fully supporting or denouncing it's use, but gives some ethical guidelines. Much like our "journalist code," he gives leeway, explaining that in almost all cases it is unethical, all the while praising the work that some important stories found using undercover reporting. He also illustrates the difference between deception as a means to uncover a fraudulant and abusive mental health system as opposed to posing as a cop to get a scoop on the local gossip. He follows a typical "means justify the end" type ethical pattern, one that often produces great stories, but is a slippery slope, which he is aware of.

In the case of "Undercover at Big Nell's," Saltzman almost certainly wouldn't have approved the use of deception under the circumstances. They were going after a sleazy headline, disregarded the integrity of their own journalist's who were married men, treating them as instruments, and didn't really accomplish any true justice. Any outcome that would have justified the use of deception, such as potential corruption using taxpayer money to keep open a whorehouse and not a church, could have been achieved by carefully combing through documents or financial reports. There was a litany of other ways to uncover such a story, other than getting the angle from the perspective of a john, and using deception.

kiersten said...

I do not believe that Saltzman would have agreed with the journalist’s decision to sleep with the prostitute. I think that that is where Saltzman would have drawn the line between supporting the deception and not supporting it.
Saltzman states that a journalist who uses deceptive tactics to seek the truth and report it in order to result in the good of social welfare is being ethical. In this case, the end result was the church being saved and the prevention of another brothel.
I do not think the journalist’s motives were for personal gain in any sense until he actually participated in the act of prostitution. (That is where it was for personal gain).I think that it was an issue that needed to be addressed in the community and ultimately did good for the society.

Pamela said...

Joe Saltzman respectably supports undercover reporting for revealing what is important to the public welfare. Like Marietta mentioned, undercover reporting is a controversial topic among journalism ethics. But, I think undercover journalism should not be practiced unless it could prevent something that is threatening the public’s health or safety.

I think “Undercover at Big Nell’s” is an example of reasonable undercover story. Although one of the reporters took advantage of his role as a client, the revelation of the brothel saved the church. Even though church is not a value of mine, I do think it is an important aspect of many communities and far more useful to the majority of people in the community than Big Nell’s.

Even though the story did save the church, I am not so sure the staffers or the editor went into the investigation with the full intention to preserve public welfare. The first quote in the story “You won’t believe this,” carries an excited tone not a concerned one. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I don’t think the staffers deserve all of the credit because I don’t think they wrote the story to benefit the people. They could have just written to benefit the paper.

Liz Velez said...

I would have to say Saltzman wouldn't approve of the reporting in "Undercover at Big Nell's." Saltzman states in the chapter that when one performs undercover reporting "deception is a premeditated assault on a person' privacy and dignity" no matter what the motivation. In the case, one of the journalists actually goes all the way through with the charade by sleeping with a prostitute, engaging in illegal activity by NY state law. If just being undercover is unethical, performing illegal acts while undercover and justifying them as being for the story is even more so.

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.