Friday, April 17, 2015

Undercover journalism

I'm going to give a fuller answer to a question I was asked:

Bill Valicella has elsewhere brought up the point that liberals have no compunction about playing politics dirty. They lie, they misrepresent, they bully, and they try to shut down any view that doesn't comport with theirs. They cheat, in other words. He thinks that if conservatives don't follow suit, they will be buried; what do you think?
i) Christians can't merely respond in kind. We can't simply take our tactics from unbelievers, then do the same thing in reverse.

We must have our own standards. The problem is when some believers frame Christian ethics as an otherworldly ideal that can't offer concrete, constructive guidance or solutions in a fallen, real-world situation.

There's the question of what Christian ethics prescribes, proscribes, or permits. That's what I've been exploring.
ii) Undercover journalism is a good illustration. And I think Lila Rose and James O’Keefe are fine examples. For instance:
My point is not to issue them a blank check, but to commend the kinds of things they investigate. 
Undercover journalists misrepresent their background or true intentions. Is that unethical? Depends.
a) Is this information that can only be obtained by subterfuge? 
b) Is this information which the public is entitled to have
Offhand, I'd say those are two necessary conditions which jointly constituted a sufficient condition. Mind you, I'm not attempting to provide an exhaustive set of criteria. There may be exceptions or other criteria.
iii) Some ethicists treat undercover journalism is a last resort. But that's ambiguous. It's not like you can go to the same shady outfit twice, where the first time you are upfront about your intentions, then failing that, you return with the same questions, only this time you resort to subterfuge. 
You won't have that fallback, because you blew your cover the first time. The shady outfit will be on guard the next time around. So you only get one shot. Better aim well to make it hit the mark. 
iv) Among other things, the ethics of undercover journalism involves the question of reasonable expectations. I just did a general post on that subject:
Is there a reasonable expectation that the people who question you don't have a hidden agenda? In some cases, yes. For instance, in Beltway journalism you have a cozy relationship involving bureaucrats who leak information to trusted reporters at the Washington Post or NYT. 
This has less to do with the ethics of journalism than the pragmatics of journalism. If a reporter had a reputation for burning anonymous sources, all his sources would dry up overnight. So he must protect the confidentiality of his informations to have informants.
v) However, undercover journalism is known to exist. So there's no automatic presumption that you might not be the target of a journalist who misrepresents his background or intentions. 
vi) Likewise, undercover journalists "trick" the respondent into telling the truth. The respondent thinks that he has a sympathetic audience. It's safe to drop guard down and say what his outfit really does.
But as a rule, you aren't wronging someone by getting them to tell the truth. There's a prima facie duty to tell the truth, absent countervailing duties.
In addition, this is getting them to tell the truth about wrongdoing committed at or by their establishment. It isn't wrong to expose wrongdoing or wrongdoers.
And this isn't confined to interviewing participants. It may involve observing misconduct, by taking a job at the establishment. Infiltrating the organization to become an eyewitness. 
Let's give some examples of undercover journalism: the Walter Reed scandal, elder abuse in nursing homes. Patient abuse at psychiatric facilities. Voter fraud. Medicaid fraud. Welfare queens. The refusal of Planned Parenthood to report statutory rape. The seduction of minors by homosexual predators. Child prostitution. Redating expired meat. Lax airport security. Police corruption. 
These are things which gov't ought to investigate and prosecute, but is frequently negligent because gov't is itself complicit in wrongdoing. 

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