Journalism: the ugly truth

Would you concede to the need to be duplicitous if it meant finding information that is of importance to the public? I’m taking a journalism ethics class this semester where we discuss the presiding principles that journalists must consider when deciding what to cover, how to obtain information and the best way to publish their findings. To study this, we research cases in which journalists have had to deal with conflicting interests. One primary issue is journalists’ employment of deception – whether it be going undercover or allowing others to make assumptions about your job and purpose – to gather information.

Now, I’m sure at first, the expected objectivity of journalism doesn’t seem to go with a kind of ethical deception. Of course, the purpose for a deception determines if it’s justifiable or not, where the ends justify the means. As crass as that sounds, we owe a great deal to the surreptitious behavior and deceptive actions of journalists for many things, and I think the coming days will establish the need even more.

Jonathan Franklin, for instance, had to pose as a mortician in a casualty processing center during the Persian Gulf War to get accurate numbers and details that the government wouldn’t divulge. Since he found that the official numbers were egregiously incorrect and deaths due to friendly fire were being reported as training accidents, I thought he was right to act as he did, especially when I think of the families of the deceased getting the information they deserve. In his efforts to pursue the matter ethically, he had exhausted all of his above-board means of acquiring the information, disclosing his deception in the published article.

To me, when there are no alternative means to get the information and you’re honest about your purposes and methods, the function of journalism to expose government wrongdoing and report what the public should know can be carried out ethically. I think, to some extent, we have to accept that the truth isn’t always pretty and that, in the end, a journalist’s greatest loyalty is to truth for the public.

After the recent State of the Union address, with the looming figure of Nancy Pelosi in the background, I think there’ll be a whole host of issues and allegations with the upcoming election for journalists to investigate, which will question the ethical boundaries of journalism. In President Trump’s address, I saw opportunities for all parties to make progress together and where progress had been achieved. But as I don’t think partisan politics will become more cooperative anytime soon, although I truly wish they would, I fear many journalists will mistakenly believe they are searching for information using these more deceptive means, thinking they’ll expose dirty secrets, when they should actually look in the opposite direction.

And it’s here that I would like to reiterate the importance of how the purpose of deception allows it to be performed ethically. Where an issue should be black and white, our politicians make convoluted arguments that serve their interests more than the public’s right to justice and the truth. Perhaps, our debates of whether some action was ethical traces back to a flaw in one’s character rather than one’s reasoning.