White lies

Bending the truth to expose injustice

Is it ever acceptable for journalists to use deception to gather facts? What if the resulting story uncovers a major social wrong?

By Henry McNulty

Henry McNulty is reader representative for The Hartford Courant.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (August 1989), pp. 6,7.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Newspapers should expose racial discrimination. No doubt about it. But what if reporters must lie to get the story?

That “does-the-end-justify-the-means” dilemma confronted me this spring when my newspaper, The Hartford Courant, reported on racial bias among some area real estate firms. Reporters, appearing to be almost identical in every financial and personal detail except race, posed as potential home buyers to gather the evidence. In some cases, real estate agents gave the “testers” who were black tougher financial scrutiny. Other times, blacks were “steered” to towns that already have significant minority populations.

The investigation was meticulously prepared, carefully written and clearly presented. Immediately after it appeared, Connecticut’s governor ordered a statewide investigation of real estate discrimination. The perfect story, right?

Not to me, and I said so in my column. The reporters had used altered names and false information to hide their identities. In short, we lied. A news story, however important, can’t be based on deception.

It was not an easy conclusion to reach. There’s a long history of reporters’ disguising themselves to root out corruption. And this investigation struck a strong blow for justice and equality.

But I can’t think of a case in which such deception would be justified – even when the goals are noble, as these certainly were, and even when the results are positive for the community.

The Courant’s policy states, “we do not misrepresent ourselves” in pursuing a story. But that’s quickly followed by the statement that “from time to time, legitimate stories in the public interest might involve a conflict with (this policy).”

The escape clause essentially means we have a policy that permits deception. It flatly prohibits only casual or willy-nilly misrepresentation – but it lets us lie to get a story whenever we think we should. The real estate probe wasn’t even an exception to the rules, since an exception is already built in.

To our credit, the testing procedure and the newspaper’s policy were explained in a sidebar headed “How, why the test was done.” At least we didn’t hide the deception.

Saying “journalists shouldn’t lie” opens up a host of questions: What about restaurant reviewers who pretend to be ordinary customers when in fact they intend to report on their dining experience? Aren’t they misrepresenting themselves, too?

Perhaps. But there are many facets to the question of deceiving sources, and I feel each case must be examined closely. I make a distinction, for example, between actively giving a false name and passively letting someone assume a reporter is just an average consumer.

Could we have done the real estate story without telling lies? Maybe, but it would have been an arduous task. Executive Editor Michael E. Waller, who approved the project, thinks it would have been more difficult than that.

“To have an outside group . . . do the testing would still have posed problems,” he said. “They would have had to misrepresent themselves — and I see little ethical difference between us misrepresenting ourselves and asking someone else to do it for us.

“Asking real home buyers. . .to be the testers posed, in my mind, insurmountable problems. The first would be finding the people to fit the test criteria and getting them to do it simultaneously and in a timely manner. The second would be keeping any reasonable control of accuracy, and assurance that they faithfully would follow all the testing guidelines.”

He’s probably right. So I say, with deep regret, that we couldn’t – and so, we shouldn’t – have done this investigation, despite its social importance.

After my column appeared, a handful of readers called me to support my position – including a caller who identified himself as an investigative reporter at a competing newspaper.

At the Courant, a couple of reporters agreed with me; most didn’t, saying that our deception was benign in comparison to the illegal activity we disclosed.

The open disagreement comes with an ombudsman’s territory. But I’m sorry to say my column generated some less-than-open criticism as well. An obviously altered news release purporting to be from the National Association of Realtors soon appeared on the newsroom bulletin board. It said I had accepted “many gratuities” from the real estate association and quoted me as telling them, “When you decide to sell your soul, always be sure to get top market price.”

I guess such sniping comes with the territory too. But it doesn’t change my mind. Credibility is our most important asset. And if we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that credibility before a word is written.

 

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