The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason about Ethics

By Lee Wilkins; Renita Coleman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
The Ethics of Journalistic
Deception

Seow Ting Lee Illinois State University


DEFINITIONS AND PHILOSOPHICAL APPROACHES

“Hello, I am John Smith. I'm calling from police headquarters. ”

These simple words, when uttered by a journalist making a phone call at a police station, are truthful and deceptive. John Smith is making a true statement to initiate a false belief for the purpose of obtaining information for a story—possibly a very important story. Is this wrong?

It depends. Deception is an illusive and difficult issue. As the inverse of truthtelling, deception is wrong and yet systemic in human relationships, from little white lies in social intercourse to the more capacious deception in the political arena or warfare. Studies have shown that at least one out of four conversations contains some form of deception (Buller & Burgoon, 1996; DePaulo et al, 1996). On the other hand, truthtelling is perhaps the closest to a universal value that we have. According to Mieth (1997), truth is a basic norm, although people “invoke at one moment the norm of truthfulness and at the next moment the right to lie, depending on circumstances and context” (p. 87).

In journalism, with its emphasis on pursuing and publishing truth, deception hits at the heart of the profession, although many journalists and media scholars would consider deception a necessary evil (e.g., Kieran, 1997; Lambeth, 1992). As noted by Kieran (1997), “Paradoxically, we demand that journalists tell the truth, and yet, to get at the truth, they may have to lie” (p. 66).

Deceptive practices by journalists are not uncommon, as seen in 18th-century hoaxes and 19th-century impersonations by muckrakers, and in more recent cases of hidden cameras and fabrication. Benjamin Franklin—'Amer-

-92-

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