There is a popular saying that goes, the end justifies the means. That is, no matter how ‘dirty’ chasing the truth becomes, if the ‘truth’ gets fished out at the end of the day, it remains untainted.
Should this maxim apply to journalism as well?
Let me make it clear from the outset that I do not have the answer. What I do have is a short story to share – after which we can have our discussion.
The Chicago Tribune published a report on a Journalism professor, who allegedly allowed his students lie about their identities while investigating prisoners’ convictions.
A Journalist’s natural craving for a scoop – and I don’t mean a scoop of ice cream, an exclusive story, makes him or her almost want to always give in to the temptation of false identity or lies to hit the jackpot story. We all know that the bigger the scoop, the faster the Journalist’s career climbs. In fact, some scoops get you made for life. Look at Woodard and Bernstein, they are still reaping the rewards of exposing Nixon many years after. Their Watergate story is like the judicial constitution and blueprint for Investigative Journalism.
During an investigative reporting process, the Journalist is trying to uncover what certain parties want to keep under wraps for as long as possible – they definitely will not want to talk to Journalists. How do you siphon the story then?
There was a scenario I read in a novel (fiction) a long time ago (Career Girls by Louise Bagshawe). In a particular magazine house, no one had been able to crack the story of major film star who always beat up his girlfriend. Since the girl won’t speak up and he definitely wouldn’t announce himself to the press as a woman-beater, the magazine rallied on mere speculations without ever being able to publish.
Soon this young and ambitious fresh graduate girl, Topaz, joined the magazine. She was determined to crack this story if it would earn her recognition within the organisation as a proper reporter. So what did she do?
She researched this film star and tracked him down (talk about the survelliance society) and approached him with a Dictaphone recorder (she forgot to turn on) secured in her pocket. Bagshawe’s major characters are always dashingly beautiful, so the film star welcomed her with a smile and twinkling eyes. However, the eyes “crysallized into chips of ice” once she announced she was a reporter and would like to ask him some questions. He instantly rebuffed her and took off. Topaz followed (persistence). At least, in this case Topaz started out properly introducing herself as a Journalist, but that didn’t crack the story – as expected.
Topaz went on to sharply disguise herself as “Jo-Ann some Texan chick”. She met him up in a club, played up her sexuality by dropping a few cleavage buttons and chatting in seductive tones, while the rolling dictaphone whirred under her dress. In a nutshell, Topaz got her story fully recorded on tape – but the film star had no idea she was a reporter. Her climb to the top in that fictional organisation was limitless. This story shot her to the limelight, but she lied!
It’s a top dilemma.
Can Journalists lie (by omission or commission) to get a story?
If they can’t, what options do they have?