Undercover Techniques By Reporters p.11

By: Mary Hausch

Journalism faculty members debate the ethical pros and cons sp.

DECEPTIVE TECHNIQUES USED by the Nashville Tennessean in an award-winning series on life in low income housing projects sparked controversy at the 11th annual National Workshop on Teaching Ethics in Journalism, held recently at Vanderbilt University.
Faculty members from 21 universities debated the practices used by two Tennessean reporters who spent a month living in a low income housing project to gather information for a series depicting life in the area. The reporters did not tell residents they were reporters before using their names and pictures in the stories which were published last year.
Tennessean reporter Susan Thomas defended the undercover operation and said the deception was necessary to see life as it really exists in poor areas of Nashville. She said the reporters had planned to tell their subjects they were journalists before the stories ran, but unforeseen circumstances made that impossible.
She said the stories, which received the Best of Gannett Public Service award for 1994, resulted in the development of an educational program now being used in some areas of Nashville.
Journalism educators were divided on whether the deceptive tactics were necessary, and whether the stories should have been done if reporters could not get their information by more traditional means.
Thomas’ reporting was defended by John Seigenthaler, former publisher of the Tennessean, who said that the series showed many residents of Nashville the conditions others live under.
He chastised the educators for not reading the articles before criticizing them. Noting that most people praised the Tennessean when it used undercover techniques to write about activities of the Ku Klux Klan, Seigenthaler stated, “Sometimes our perception of exploitation is related to who is being exploited and how we feel about them.”
He said journalists justify deception after making moral judgments about the subjects of their stories.
Deni Elliott, Mansfield Professor of Ethics at the University of Montana, told the educators that acts of deception by journalists must be justified in advance by using five criteria. They include an analysis of the information you are attempting to uncover, an exhaustion of all other methods of obtaining the material, and development of a plan that eliminates innocent bystanders from harm.
She said it also is important for journalists to share with the public what was done and why, even if the information expected is not obtained.
Elliott said she worries about people like those portrayed in the Tennessean stories being exploited unknowingly.
Louis Hodges, who teaches applied ethics at Washington and Lee University, said it is sometimes necessary for journalists to use deceptive techniques.
“A news organization that doesn’t have the guts to deceive when it needs to is diminished in my opinion,” he said.
Hodges showed the workshop participants a tape of Diane Sawyer’s undercover story about questionable food handling practices at Food Lion stores, which was broadcast on ABC’s Prime Time program. He suggested that exposing the food chain’s deceptive practices warranted deception on the part of journalists.
Also during the workshop Seigenthaler, who is now chairman of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt, told conference participants that editors must start saying no to gossip-based stories which they get from television or the tabloid press.
“Nobody in this world, in which gossip is news, dares say no to anything once it is displayed on the tube. Newspaper editors and television news directors are on a treadmill and dare not step off,” he observed.
Seigenthaler, who spent 43 years at the Tennessean as a reporter, editor and publisher, noted the pressures television puts on newspaper journalists because the discussion of rumor on television sometimes makes rumors news. He suggested that editors be more selective in determining for themselves what is news and decline to run stories which have no merit.
The educators also discussed civic journalism as it is being developed by newspapers around the country.
Colette Jenkins of the Akron Beacon Journal explained how that paper’s award-winning series on race relations in Akron resulted in positive changes.
Some participants voiced concern that reporters are becoming too involved when they serve as catalysts for change in their communities.
The five-day workshop was funded by the Freedom Forum and held at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. Participants shared their techniques for teaching ethics to journalism students and discussed the merits of using a philosophical approach versus case studies of ethical dilemmas in the real world.
The workshop was coordinated through the University of Missouri by Edmund Lambeth. Participants came from around the nation and two foreign countries.
?(The Tennessean’s method’s of gathering information for the series was defended by former publisher John Seigenthaler, who said that final product showed many residents of Nashville the conditions others live under.
Hausch is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Nevada, ) [Caption & Photo]

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