Joyce Terhaar

It’s not the norm for reporters to go undercover

David Daleiden, who produced undercover videos that seek to implicate Planned Parenthood in illegalities related to the handling of fetal tissue, was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record.
David Daleiden, who produced undercover videos that seek to implicate Planned Parenthood in illegalities related to the handling of fetal tissue, was indicted on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record. Center for Medical Progress

David R. Daleiden would have you believe that it’s routine behavior for investigative journalists to use “undercover techniques” to get their stories.

It’s not.

Daleiden is from Davis, but known nationally for the controversial videos created by his nonprofit, the Center for Medical Progress, intended to show Planned Parenthood was making money illegally by selling fetal tissue.

Last week a Texas district attorney investigating those allegations instead announced grand jury indictments against Daleiden and a colleague on a felony charge of tampering with a government record. The Los Angeles Times reported that court records alleged the two used fake California driver’s licenses when they secretly made video recordings of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of Houston.

Daleiden, pictured as Robert Daoud Sarkis of Aptos in the license, issued this statement in response to his indictment: “The Center for Medical Progress uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press, and follows all applicable laws.”

But Daleiden is far too casual about an ethical line taken seriously by journalists, particularly those from traditional print newsrooms. It’s not routine for a reporter to pretend he or she is someone else, or to lie to a source. It’s not OK to make fraudulent documents to help with that pretense. Beyond the legal issue is a practical concern – if the reporting approach is dishonest, how can anyone trust the final story?

When the line is crossed, it tends to make news. Journalists of my generation have talked over the years about The Mirage tavern run by the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1970s. It might be the most well known case of journalistic subterfuge (it does have its own Wikipedia entry and was taught in my college ethics class) as Sun-Times journalists set up shop and used hidden cameras to document government shakedowns and other crimes. The paper’s reporting led to substantial reform and for that reason some well-regarded journalists will defend the approach. Others, though, strongly criticized the pretense, and it reportedly did not win a Pulitzer Prize because of the deception.

6Number of requirements to be met to make an ethical decision to report undercover

But the reporting might well pass an ethical decision-making checklist published in 2002 by Bob Steele, one of this country’s foremost voices on journalism ethics.

Steele wrote that it might be appropriate to use deception/misrepresentation/hidden cameras if all of the following were true: the information is of profound importance; all other alternatives for obtaining it have been exhausted; the nature of and reason for the deception will be disclosed; those involved apply excellence to the full pursuit of the story; the harm prevented outweighs any harm caused; and the journalists involved have thoroughly vetted the ethical and legal issues.

It’s a tough list, one I like. It’s designed to protect credibility and reputation. It holds journalists to a high bar, and it makes apparent that some who claim to be behaving as journalists are instead jumping to an easy defense – that the information is of profound public importance – rather than challenging themselves to first do the hard work to find an ethical and fair approach.

The Bee’s ethics policy also establishes boundaries in the pursuit of news. Some should be obvious, whether you’re a journalist or not. We follow the law regarding electronic recordings, we don’t trespass, we don’t steal, we don’t tap phones.

In addition, the policy says, “We will identify ourselves as journalists when covering stories … However, journalists need not announce their affiliation in seeking information ordinarily available to the public (e.g., public meetings, records requests). In those rare instances where a story of great public interest could not be obtained without concealing identity, approval of the executive editor or managing editor is required. When an exception is made, readers will be informed about the nature of and reason for the news gathering.”

I think people do it because they think it seems like a cool thing to do and it lets them become part of the story. It’s a short cut.

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors

Those instances indeed are rare; neither Scott Lebar, The Bee’s managing editor, nor I have ever made that exception. We found other ways to obtain the information, or decided it was not crucial. In that, we are a pretty typical newsroom.

“The one cardinal rule for many journalists is the idea that if a journalist lies about who they are, they give away one of the key things that gives their work benefit, which is their credibility,” said Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

“There are good journalists who would argue there are cases and times where it is necessary. Many news organizations simply won’t allow it,” he said.

Horvit called some undercover reporting “stunt reporting. I think people do it because they think it seems like a cool thing to do and it lets them become part of the story. It’s a short cut” to the difficult reporting that typically goes into an investigation.

That’s why Steele’s list includes the fundamental step that journalists first must exhaust all other alternatives to obtain the information.

That’s not the sexy approach; it’s just hard work. It means conducting interview after interview to find information, knocking on doors, fighting for public documents, analyzing data. But the end result is honest and true, and won’t ignite a national argument about its merits.

  Comments