The general rule for undercover journalism is not to break the law. But there are also numerous ethical considerations: chiefly to make sure that the sin doesn't hijack the scoop. Brooke Kroeger is the author of "Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception" and a journalism professor at New York University. She maintains an online database of examples of deception in journalism culled from nearly 200 years of undercover reporting. She spoke with Brooke about the considerations journalists should make when going uncover.
The Bothy Band: The Butterfly
BROOKE: So legally, the general rule for undercover journalism is not to break the law. But ethically, there are guidelines. Perhaps the most important, is not to cross the ethical line in such a way that it draws attention away from the reporting. In other words, don’t let journalistic misconduct highjack the story. Brooke Kroeger is the author of Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception. She’s assembled a database of nearly 200 years of undercover reporting, divided into successes, stories with big stakes and big impact, or lapses, when the reporter does cross that ethical line, thereby smothering the story and dishonouring a time-honored tradition. Here she offers some rules for doing it right.
KROEGER: First of all is it a big enough, important enough subject to warrant this kind of scrutiny. One value that most organizations that would permit it would say is that it should be the journalism of last resort, and I would not say that. I would amend that to say, that there's no other timely or equally effective means presenting the material, because impact is the point. Also, did you mitigate against peripheral harm? You don't want a worker who's not sophisticated about journalistic practice to end up without a job because of what you did. You would have serious vetting up the editorial ladder, and you would have other people looking at it from outside. you would have lawyers helping you through the ethical and legal thickets. Because You can see what happened. You end up with the story going elsewhere. It's not - it's no longer your story, it's all about your drivers license.
BROOKE: You also say that guidelines require if not quite telling the truth at least not lying.
BROOKE: With regard to your guidelines, not disclosing information isn't necessarily lying.
BROOKE: Giving the impression that you are somebody that you're not isn't lying, lying is just answering or filling out a form in a way that is patently untrue.
KROEGER: Okay, so, let's try this. Some of the Nashville Tennessean exposes of the early years, really famous reporter, Nat Caldwell, would use the name Nat Green which was his middle name. Reporters who are known by a nickname might use his or her formal name that they are not known by, that's a pretty typical ruse that's acceptable.
BROOKE: That is acceptable.
KROEGER: It's pretty acceptable.
BROOKE: There's a great deal of stress in the journalism community I think over the videos from the Center for Medical Progress. I mean, obviously there's a strong desire to protect the first amendment and many people believe that this group should have the right to disseminate their videos and then maybe pay for it later. But certainly not prior restraint. At the same time, many of these people are worried about the fallout for abortion rights. And one of these people is notably fictional. Diane Lockhart in the show the Good Wife. Now, stay with me here.
BROOKE: So I know you're familiar with this episode from November, it's actually based on one of the prior restraint cases around these videos. Describe Diane.
KROEGER: Oh Diane is this terrific lawyer of a certain age, incredibly well dressed. Head of a firm, and generally left wing, though married to a right wing guy.
BROOKE: Yeah, she's got all the liberally approved positions. But now she has to argue a case on behalf of a group very much like the Center for Medical Progress, who've made an undercover video about fetal tissue being sold and there's an injunction against releasing it, so she's put in this difficult position to defend abortion rights, or defend First Amendment protections. We have a clip of Diane here, speaking with one of her other clients, the head of a national women's group, who speaks first.
BEA: How can you do this.
LOCKHART: Bea, if you're talking about this case, it's not about choice. It's about the first amendment.
BEA: That's a nice, neat justification.
LOCKHART: The pro choice position isn't so weak that it can't stand up to the marketplace of ideas.
BEA: This isn't about censorship, this is about an orchestrated, right wing war on women.
LOCKHART: Bea, I will join you when arguing against the substance of these tapes, but only after they're made public.
BEA: But that's insane. We wouldn't have to argue against them if they weren't made public.
BROOKE: Sound familiar?
BROOKE: So, what do you think about these videos from the Center for Medical Progress? Would you put them in your undercover reporting database?
KROEGER: Well, at this moment, they would probably fall under lapses because of the method that was employed and the way it was executed. At least if the charges of this substantial editing turn out to be correct. You know, the criteria for the database is, did you have impact? And um if the impact is hijacked by your method, then you've fallen in the lapses.
BROOKE: Did you struggle with this question at all?
KROEGER: Oh sure. I haven't put any of this new material up, largely because there's so much legal wrangling going on now. And let's see how it plays out. I mean, it doesn't look good.
BROOKE: Nelly Bly.
KROEGER: My old friend.
BROOKE: She did it first, didn't she?
KROEGER: She actually didn't do a first, she did a second. But hers was done in a way that got the attention because of her personal narrative. It's one of the things that speaks to why I see this as a method that should not be lost. There are certain cases where it is really the way to get information out and to get action.
BROOKE: Could you quote anything from Nelly Bly's 1887 expose of the Blackwell's Island lunatic asylum where she got in as a lunatic.
KROEGER: Sure I can... to get the page to work for me. My teeth chattered and my limbs were gooseflesh and blue with cold. Suddenly I got one after the other three buckets of water over my head. Ice cold water, too. Into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking from the tub. For once, I did look insane.
BROOKE: Brooke, thank you very much.
KROEGER: YOu're so welcome, I hope it helps.
BROOKE: Brooke Kroeger is the author of Undercover Reporting: the Truth about Deception. And she also teaches journalism at New York University. Her database is at Undercover Reporting dot org.
BOB: That’s it for this week’s show. On The Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Mythili Rao. We had more help from Dasha Lisitsina, Alex Friedland and David Conrad. And our show was edited by…Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Cayce Means.
BROOKE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for news. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.