Can Journalists Lie to Get a Story?

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?


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6 thoughts on “Can Journalists Lie to Get a Story?

  1. Gemma Sidney says:

    Hmm. Your article got me thinking. It all depends on the individual’s ethics and moral boundaries. We studied media ethics at university – where we were told we mustn’t lie to get a story. But then some journalists are rewarded for their efforts, no matter how unethical they may have been.

    People get carried away talking about the ‘greater good’ (much like scientists carrying out animal testing, which I am against). The problem is, people’s definition of ‘good’ varies widely.

    I dont think I have the answer to your question, either! I guess it’s up to each individual to set their boundaries and stick to them.

    • Tomi Ola says:

      I think I really like your line of thought, “…it’s up to each individual to set their boundaries and stick to them.”

      • Gemma Sidney says:

        Thanks. The difficult part is sticking to those boundaries. Easy to think about in theory, harder to do when tempted with a scoop!

  2. MsLuffa says:

    Unfortunately, i don’t have the answer either, but what it seems really selfish to me that a journalist should lie to get a story. The scenario in the book you read is quite difficult but the reality is the coverage of that story could make life worse for the abused woman.
    Besides, boosting Topaz’s career and millions of sales what other good came out of it? Not much i imagine?
    Journalists are supposed to be custodians of the truth – they are vital to informing the public of the truth – but how can the public trust that what they have reported is truth if their methods of getting the story are less than trustworthy?
    I’m a firm beleiver that nothing remains hidden under the sun – unfortunately, i don’t beleive the truth should always be front page news.
    liking the blog by the way 🙂

  3. Motilola says:

    This is a very interesting topic. Well done Tomi for blogging about it. For me, media ethics is relative and it depends on how the journalist intends to go about getting a scoop/ story. I do not necessarily think it’s about lying or being truthful. I think it’s more about doing the right audience analysis and in this case scoop analysis which was what Topaz in your short story did. I have had to go ‘under cover’ as a practising journalist when fishing in troubled waters. As much as truthfulness is one of the major characteristics of a good journalist, the very notion of the word itself is ambiguous. Truthful to who, in whose interest? During my undergrad research, my case study was a Muslim-dominated town, Iwo in Osun State, Nigeria and I needed to interview the palace chiefs and market women. My supervisor personally made sure I always went for my ‘scoop’ in hijab and scarfs. It only made my work easier. Of course, it would have influenced my findings but a journalist must do what he/she has to do to get a scoop as long as there is no threat to life in so doing.

  4. 1960standard says:

    Ok guys,let’s do this,has anyone heard of the term occupational hazards,or casualty of war or the one that says purpose justifies every act of God? My point is that there are certain contradictions that abound in our world,if its a hazard,then we should not make it an occupation,or do we ignore the details simply because the purpose is right? At times we call it self defence in law,he killed the man,the judge goes; no it was self defence. Similarly, a journalist for the purpose of truth,not career development might embark on certain line of action the might be deemed morally less expected but so long as the purpose is not for self attainment, it becomes permissive;I know your next question,how do we determine if its or not for self? My answer to that is;in management science,we discuss work segmentation and its said that you must learn not to over segment a task less you loose focus of the objective,a good example is when you use up too much funds employing a consultant to train your workers,at some point you might need to start a training unit within the company to save cost,over segmentation is now when you want to start producing your own toilet paper because you use a lot as well where as you are a computer design company. My point is,you need to keep your eyes on the ball. If we get into the intricacies of morality,it would clash with objectivity. The journalist is no different from lawyers and teachers,else we’ll soon sympathize with a criminal because his wife is expecting a baby so don’t expose him.
    I would not condone a lie but I would not let off the truth,cos every time it take a while for the truth to be revealed,the lie remains a truth in the society. The is no vacuum,journalist are expected to help displace a lie by revealing the truth,if they have to turn the world upside down to achieve that or use a lie to uncover the truth about the long presumed truth with is a lie,then so be it. Its part of occupational hazards. That’s my opinion.
    God help us all.

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