The outcry against Salt Lake County deputy sheriffs posing as firefighters to get entry in a drug bust carries an interesting lesson, one that investigative journalists also need to keep in mind.
It is that agencies that use undercover methods always risk undermining public trust in themselves. That is especially true when the deceit is practiced by the very people whose job it is to guard the public against deception.Misrepresentation by reporters is less common than readers and listeners believe, but it has been used at least for the past century. In the 1890s Nellie Bly posed as a mental patient and entered what was then called a madhouse in order to write about conditions there firsthand for the New York World. Similarly, as a reporter for the Washington Post, Ben Bagdikian, who interestingly enough now teaches journalism ethics at Cal Berkeley, got himself committed to a Pennsylvania prison under an assumed identity as a prisoner awaiting a grand jury hearing in a murder. He was researching a series called "The Shame of the Prisons."
- AMONG ALL UNDERCOVER methods, falsifying an identity is the most risky and the least common.
The presumption in such deception always is that a higher good will be served. But reporters have to ask: Is there another way to get this story, do the readers need this information, and above all, will the readers support the need for these methods? Deni Elliot, an ethicist who taught recently at Utah State University, writes that "whether the reporter finds what she/he hopes to or not, public response is the most important consequence to consider."
Partly because of second thoughts like these about their own credibility, news organizations have cut back on covert reporting.
You see it less now even on "60 Minutes," where it has caused some soul searching even though it has squelched some frauds and scams. One of the best-known stories was built on an elaborate ruse in which a producer posing as a wealthy cancer victim checked in as a patient at a bogus cancer clinic.
- THE MOST MEMORABLE case of reporter misrepresentation in Salt Lake City was in a Probe 5 investigation called "The Needy and the Greedy" about 10 years ago. Jim Dabakis, the former K-Talk host, assumed for the KSL-TV cameras successive false identities, under which he showed how easy it was to get food stamps and unemployment compensation fraudulently. That investigation worked out well, but KSL has, wisely, not overdone using assumed identities in news work. And as this column has pointed out before, reporters here have never taken the identities of public safety officials like policemen and firemen.
GULF NEWS WATCH
Incongruities will be inevitable in communicating news about the war. That is particularly true when life goes on routinely on what is increasingly being called "the home front," when television moves easily from the war news into stand-up comic routines, basketball games and quiz shows, when anchors flash their patented smiles immediately after the reporting the downing of an American plane.
I was struck by another kind of needless and grotesque juxtaposition in the Deseret News, two pictures on the front page last Monday. Atop the page was a color photo of a grinning Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on his Saudi Arabia visit holding up a Bart Simpson doll that was dressed in camouflage.
That picture abutted another color shot, a poignant scene from the prayer vigil for Dion Stephenson, the marine who was the state's first combat death in the war.
The doll, a Christmas gift a sergeant had received and wanted to give to President Bush, "gave something to smile about," the sergeant's grandmother was quoted as saying. But the picture was a grim counterpoint to the solemnity and tragedy of the young Marine's death, and, to me, a reduction of the war news to the absurd.
Unfortunate lashups like this occur under deadline pressures. Remember how the president complained to the networks about a split screen imaging of a news event from the Panama invasion? One side of the screen showed bodies being returned to Dover Air Force Base, the other side the president telling reporters of his satisfaction with the invasion.
- SKIRMISHES between the press and the military continue to flare up, with the press getting nearly as much attention as the war in the field. In public TV's "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" a panel discussing "the information war" on Thursday got so into it that Robin McNeil let the segment run on until it pre-empted the hour.
The panel essentially asked the question, can newspeople be good reporters and good Americans at the same time?
That question was sparked by the American media's heavy play of the deaths in the bombing of the Baghdad bunker, as well as the presence in Baghdad of an American reporter, CNN's Peter Arnett. Many concerned people, most prominently Wyoming's Sen. Alan Simpson, argue the press is playing into Saddam's hands.
Arnett's colleagues leaped to his defense, however, noting that he is a feisty and objective reporter who, while working within the limitations of Iraqi censorship, has been wary of Iraqi disinformation.
Arnett is capable of defending himself and indeed has done so, saying that while he couldn't see everything he'd like to see, he has not been told what to report. "I feel that what we do see is adequate as long as I'm cautious enough to frame the context very carefully."
On the MacNeil-Lehrer panel, Arnett's CNN boss noted that while Arnett is the only American reporting regularly from Baghdad, a couple of dozen other foreign news representatives also are there. Would Americans want to view events in Baghdad only through those reporters' eyes?