Concealing your identity as a journalist

“We believe that the manner in which we accomplish our work is as important as the work itself.”

This statement comes from the Cox Media Group’s Code of Ethics, and the principle is reflected in many other news organizations’ codes. It’s a fundamental of newsgathering: For the news to have credibility, we must be ethical in our newsgathering.

Is it critical, then, that we be honest about our very role as journalists as we do our work? If we are less than truthful about who we are, how can our work uphold the highest standards of truth-telling?

Most news organizations agree that journalists generally should identify themselves and their news organization in the course of routine newsgathering. It is not appropriate to mislead or deceive someone you are interviewing or to use subterfuge to obtain the news.

But what if we can’t get at the truth by presenting ourselves as journalists? What if by going undercover, we reveal and stop great harm? Are there times when the ends justify the means?

Undercover journalism has a rich history, from Nellie Bly to 60 Minutes. There are also many recent examples. But it is not right for every news organization. Many ban undercover reporting entirely believing that deception is never appropriate in newsgathering, and other ways can always be found to get the story.

Those who do allow hidden cameras typically discourage broad use and have tests to determine when it is appropriate. Both the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) and The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) suggest that the importance of the story and the availability of means to get the story be considered.

Because undisclosed recording can also be subject to privacy laws, local civil and criminal statutes should always be considered. In all cases, undercover journalism should be transparent to viewers and readers, who should understand why a news organization chose to take such steps.

In developing your own news organization’s code of ethics, you might consider the following:

Describing what you observe in a public place should be fine. For example, describing the behavior of police at a protest does not require that you identify yourself.

But at some point when you go from observation to what seems closer to an interview–recording someone’s words for publication or broadcast, quoting someone by name –journalists should consider identifying themselves and seeking additional comment.

This might include, for example, when you overhear two politicians talking in a corridor. Many journalists would say that if any member of the public could have heard what you did, there is no need to identify yourself, and that people talking in public have no reasonable expectation of privacy. But you might then approach the politicians, identify yourself and ask for on-the-record comment about what they said.

If you want to learn what an agency or organization tells the public about a specific situation, is it appropriate to call and ask without identifying yourself as a journalist? Most would say yes–provided you disclose that to readers and viewers. Obviously, if you learn something controversial, you will then want to seek comment to ensure a fair report.

What if you observe something newsworthy or someone tells you something newsworthy when you are “off the clock”? At what point does it become necessary to identify yourself as a journalist? Most would agree it is necessary if you intend to identify actions or words of specific individuals in a news story.

Photography in outdoor public spaces is generally fine, but what if you enter a commercial public space like a mall or a restaurant? Does your news organization require a journalist to seek permission for photographs from the property managers? Commercial spaces often have policies regarding this. Legal advice is important.

NPR’s Ethics Handbook identifies other times when complete disclosure might not be appropriate–for example, when a journalist might be placed in danger. If appropriate, you might address those in your own code.

The main author of this section is Shawn McIntosh of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

See also the modules in this project on “Interviewing” and “Privacy and Reporting on Personal Lives.”

Additional Resources
Deception/Hidden Cameras Checklist, Bob Steele