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The ethical low road? Or a necessary evil?

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When the Spokesman Review used a computer expert to pose as a teenager in a gay chat room to confirm that the Spokane, Wash., mayor trolled a gay web site for young men, did it cross the line?

A variety of ethical experts have chimed in, most, it appears, decrying the S-R’s tactic. (See Seattle Times account.)

Did the Spokesman-Review practice deceit in its attempt to nail down persuasive details about the hypocrisy of Spokane’s mayor?

Yes.

Was the manner of deceit successful?

Yes.

Was the manner of deceit the sole tool available for the task?

Probably not.

Frank Sesno, speaking with Wolf Blitzer on CNN early this week, said this particular ethical quandary isn’t easy to resolve, pointing out that the level of mayoral duplicity may have required a higher level of investigative means on the part of the newspaper.

I’ve taught media ethics for the past decade or so, and I’ve discussed this case with my students. They’re divided. Some argue the deceit is intolerable. Others say that governments lie and cheat, and an equal level of lying and cheating is needed to catch bureaucratic miscreants.

Most apparent ethical issues in my own newsroom experience had two common denominators. First, they had to be decided on a minute’s notice on deadline (which, of course, often leads to lousy decisions). Second, many, if not most, suffered from weak journalism. Usually, better and more reporting resolved what at first appeared to be an ethical concern.

Neither fits the S-R’s situation. Its editors had sufficient time to 1) do good, complete journalism and 2) carefully consider the alternatives to deceit. I’m satisfied that the S-R did not undertake its investigative method lightly and fully understood the consequences of its actions.

The ivory-tower teacher in me says, “This was wrong. Deception begets disbelief.” But the pragmatic journalism of 20 years in me says, “How much harm can a man with great power do before he’s exposed? And what is the best method for exposing him and preventing that harm?” And note, please, that the harm could be done to the most vulnerable among us — the young.

My first editor once told me: “If you shoot at the king, don’t miss.”

In this case, the S-R could not risk an errant shot and used the best alternative available to insure it didn’t.

Is this a case of the end justifies the means? Sure. And this case will end up in journalism textbooks –literally next year — that I’ll use in class. And as long as journalism has a history of Mirage bars that win reporting prizes and Food Lions that arouse the courts, and as long as politicians and corporate executives seek to harm those who cannot protect themselves, then journalists will have fewer and fewer alternatives to deceit.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 12, 2005 at 4:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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