We will pay, sooner or later, for our growing acceptance of hidden cameras and other deceptive practices in newsgathering. The latest target is the Christian counseling business owned by Michele Bachmann and her husband, Marcus Bachmann. Previous targets of such tactics have included Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, ACORN and the Rev. Tom Brock.
The ethics grow murky when journalists misrepresent themselves to get a story. Sometimes it may be the only way, but at other times it’s just the easiest way. When is it justified – to expose hypocrisy? To report on a threat to health and safety? To get good film for Sweeps Week?
“If you talk to three different ethicists, you’ll get three different responses,” says Prof. Jane Kirtley, who teaches ethics at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school. There is no clear line, she said, but she articulated the danger well: If we tell readers that we lied to get a story, how can they trust that we’re telling the truth about everything else?
Lots of media organizations would turn away in a huff from a reporter who wanted to carry a hidden camera and a faked identity into a mental health clinic. So why is it better or more ethical to publish the work of an activist/freelancer who did the same thing? That’s becoming the pattern. ABC News didn’t send an investigative reporter to get this story — but used its “investigative correspondent” to present the story and supplemental material, after John Becker of Truth Wins Out did the dirty work.
In the Bachmann Clinic case, the bar is arguably lower because one of the owners is running for president. If the clinic is using “reparative therapy” to undo the sexual orientation of gay clients – and swimming against the tide of credible professional opinion – that’s news. It would probably be news even if Michele Bachmann were not running for president, because the clinic gets public funds.
But as Prof. Kirtley points out, now that everybody has a mass communications device in his pocket, mainstream media have little to trade on but their own credibility. We should be careful about giving it away.
In the meantime, let’s take a minute to enjoy the old days, when the mainstream media really knew how to use hidden cameras: