– James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA
If you’ve been interviewed by any news medium, if there’s a chance you’ll be interviewed any time soon, or you are likely to become the target of news media coverage or new media coverage, this discussion is for you.
The two scourges of the news media, primarily legacy media, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and news blogs, are the abusive overuse of so-called “anonymous sources,” and the routine deceptions reporters use day-to-day.
For those of you who have been interviewed, this next quote will resonate powerfully with you. For those of you about to be interviewed, read it carefully. This scenario is in your future.
New York Times columnist Janet Malcolm, in a novel she wrote called “The Journalist and the Murderer,” in 1990 made this powerful and extraordinarily truthful analysis of how reporters behave:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gain¬ing their trust and betraying them without remorse… On reading the article or book in question, (the source) has to face the fact that the journalist – who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things – never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.”
The ethics of deception is a topic specifically taught in journalism school. In Chapter 6 of the book “Doing Ethics in Journalism,” there is a strategic list that justifies a lie or deception by a journalist. Here are the rules for lying to you.
• When the information sought is of profound importance. It must be of vital public interest, such as revealing a “great system failure” at top levels, or it must prevent profound harm to individuals.
• When all other alternatives to obtaining this same information have been exhausted.
• When the journalists involved are willing to fully and openly disclose the nature of the deception and the reasons for it to those involved, and to the public… but a long time afterwards [my words].
• When individuals involved and their news organization apply excellence, through outstanding craftsmanship as well as the commitment of time and funding needed to fully pursue the story.
• When the harm prevented by the information revealed through deception outweighs any harm caused by the act of deception.
• When the journalists involved have conducted a meaningful, collaborative, and deliberative decision making process in which they weigh:
o The consequences (short and long-term) of the deception on those being deceived.
o The impact on journalistic credibility.
o The motivations for their actions.
o The deceptive act in relation to their editorial mission.
o The legal implications of the action.
o The consistency of their reasoning and their action.