Is Undercover Reporting Inherently Unethical?

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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101 Responses

  1. Maribou says:

    I think it is unethical to do any sort of inquiry and *actively* conceal your purposes (ie by direct lying). We actually had a huge ethical brawl in my research and instruction class about this back in library school, because we had a (typical) assignment to go out and get help at a reference desk, and then analyze it (fine) – but then to actively conceal who we were and why were doing it so that we would get the most unvarnished service possible. One of my (favorite) classmates and I pitched a dignified fit about this in the chat forums and the assignment was changed not to required the active concealment – but there were only two or three people in the class who could even see why it was a problem. And those were future librarians, part of one of the most self-questioning groups I’ve ever belonged to!

    So in this case, I guess my question is, did you at any point actually lie? I don’t think you did. Particularly this:
    ” When talking with the church representative, he asked what kind of stuff I wrote about, and I answered that most often I write about people and groups that most people view as being on the fringe. ”

    I think that makes it clear enough that you are absolved of wrongdoing. Wait, no, one more question: if he HAD recognized what you were doing, or suspected, would you have lied to cover your tracks?

    And as an aside, I frankly think he DID recognize what you were doing, now that I know more of the story, and I think that is quite likely the reason you got special treatment. I hate to cast that kind of shade on someone I’ve never even met, but my experience of such things suggests that he really did think whatever level of deliberate deception was for the greater good – so much so that he wasn’t even deceiving you, by his lights. Obviously far from certain, but I’d happily put it at at least 60 percent.

    And I also agree with @gabriel-conroy’s point that sometimes something unethical may be done in the service of the greater good. Sinning bravely, you know? (I’d link, but the stuff I read about sinning bravely was written in 1976 by Paul Ramsey and all the links I’m seeing are just citing him.) I mean, maybe you were wrong! Maybe dude was wrong (IF he knew what you were up to and was deceiving you back, or IF said religion/cult is not on the whole good for people, regardless of whether he believes it is)! But you are both trying your best to do the right thing in general, I think. The trick, as we all know already, is that it’s dang hard to know which good really is more important a lot of the time – hence that’s where sinning bravely comes in. We CAN’T usually know, and it’s better to do your best, always aware of what you are inexorably fishing up, than to sit frozen in indecision and NOT do important, good things because they might also harm people.

    On a different tack, I think @gabriel-conroy’s point about “entering an arena meant for (to use the wrong words) the “faithful” or recruitment of people to the “faith” ” is a significant mistake in his analysis of this particular case. Because the point of such places is that ANYONE can come in, you DON’T have to be ready to convert, and in fact by saying “oh, hey, we’re JUST offering a free personality test (or a free reading room, or free food, or what have you)…. no pressure! this is not esoteric!” they are in fact making it into an open, public space of inquiry.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Maribou says:

      Let me push back on this slightly, @maribou , with a completely fictitious (but not outlandish) scenario.

      A news team at a local paper is doing an news story on a property management company, because there have been complaints in the community that the company has a policy to not rent apartments to African Americans. The company denies it.

      The paper sends a few reporters to apply for an apartment on the same day, some white and some black. The property management company, knowing it is doing something illegal and aware that the press is looking at them, asks each up front if they are really looking for a place to live or if they are reporters; each answers dishonestly that they are not reporters. The landlord goes on to tell all of the white applicants there are plenty of spaces, and they can get them into whatever kind/size of unit they wish; they tell and the AA reporters that there are simply no vacancies, and that they will have to go elsewhere to find a place to live.

      Am I right in reading your answer to say that this would be a breach of journalistic ethics?Report

      • Maribou in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        1) I would say, yes, it’s a breach of journalistic ethics, but one that’s a necessary (small) evil in the search of the greater good, ie it would be a worse breach to NOT do it. That’s the point of all that “sinning bravely” stuff, man! The problem with the librarianship thing is that we, supposedly ethical people who were just doing a research assignment, were lying to people for NO good reason – I was easily able to complete the assignment without lying, and had plenty of good and bad stuff about the transactions to analyze. The assignment had the greater and lesser goods mixed up, IMO. Whereas in your hypothetical, the goods are ranked in the correct hierarchy.

        2) If it was really bothering them, they could do their best to find folks who really ARE trying to rent apartments (preferably of the same financial class/background to shut up the “IT’S NOT EVER RACE IT’S ALWAYS CLASS” people), and recruit them as citizen-assistants or something. or at least that’s what I’d do? But there are ethical problems with that approach too – I think my interest in trying it is more because it would make a more interesting story, tbh – and also it would be pretty hard in a smaller size town – but I somehow don’t imagine this scenario taking place in this way in a smaller town (mostly b/c they can’t afford newspapers).. but maybe that’s my blinders.

        3) As a non-journalist, who knows people with degrees in journalism and has thus discovered a few of the myriad ways in which the various types of “journalistic ethics” and “normal people ethics” differ, I find this conversation fascinating. (Same thing with comparisons between “normal people ethics” and “lawyer ethics” or “librarian ethics” or “doctor ethics”…)Report

        • Kim in reply to Maribou says:

          As a nonjournalist who knows someone in Public Relations, I have a very different view on journalistic ethics.

          “Gee, let’s slap my name on this press release and publish it!”
          “Can you give us a graph? We’ll front page this story if you give us a graph” (That’s washington post, if you didn’t guess).Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Maribou says:


      On a different tack, I think @gabriel-conroy’s point about “entering an arena meant for (to use the wrong words) the “faithful” or recruitment of people to the “faith” ” is a significant mistake in his analysis of this particular case. Because the point of such places is that ANYONE can come in, you DON’T have to be ready to convert, and in fact by saying “oh, hey, we’re JUST offering a free personality test (or a free reading room, or free food, or what have you)…. no pressure! this is not esoteric!” they are in fact making it into an open, public space of inquiry.

      North made the same point on that other thread and I think he, and you, were probably right.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Maribou says:

      And those were future librarians, part of one of the most self-questioning groups I’ve ever belonged to!

      There’s a lot of truth to that. I see a lot of potential ethical quandaries at my library job. They’re usually theoretical quandaries of the sort that we’ll probably never be called on them, but it still calls for self-questioning.Report

  2. Oscar Gordon says:

    No, it isn’t.

    People lie, organizations lie, sometimes for reasons that are purely self-serving, sometimes because the intent is good, even if the means are wrong.

    Still, people lie. Society can handle little lies, lies whose consequence is only relevant to a few individuals. But big lies, lies that affect whole populations, however sliced (regional, demographics, etc.) can not be tolerated. Hence undercover investigations to root out the truth.

    Ethically, the size of the population affected by the lie(s) drives the ethics. There is little harm to society if Bob the line worker is stepping out on his wife, so the efforts of an undercover investigation by police or journalists is ethically thin (absent some larger issue), but if Bob the construction manager is falsifying invoices and purchase orders regarding the construction materials for the new interstate overpass? That’s a whole different kettle of fish.

    When it comes to religion, the same applies. Religions have a bad habit of being used as a cover for scams or other bad behavior, largely because of the way government treats them. The way Scientology behaves, especially with regard to outsiders, and even more so those who leave the “church”, sets off all kinds of bullshit alarms in the heads of a lot of people, much more so than other religions generally do. Considering the populations affected by the behavior of the “church”, undercover investigations are not only ethical, but warranted.

    Finally, a caveat. A perfectly legitimate and warranted undercover investigation can become ethically problematic if, should the investigator find little meat for the story, facts are colorfully embellished, exaggerated, or outright fabricated so that the effort is not wasted. I mean, we have a section of law that covers such things, even if applying it can be tricky.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Finally, a caveat. A perfectly legitimate and warranted undercover investigation can become ethically problematic if, should the investigator find little meat for the story, facts are colorfully embellished, exaggerated, or outright fabricated so that the effort is not wasted.

      I agree with this. But I would want to say (and I think you would agree with me) that in such cases, the lapse in ethics is not that there person has been undercover. My problem with James O’Keefe, for example, wasn’t that he went undercover and recorded people; it was that he presented his findings in a deceptive way to get a story that sold better. To me, the transgression is closer to what NBC News infamously did with the George Zimmerman tape, and that was not undercover at all.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Yep. My point was that you can mess up the ethics of the whole thing by screwing up the ethics of a key point. See the PP videos. Had they shown actual illegal or highly unethical behavior (instead of behavior that made some people feel icky), the undercover operation probably would not have been looked at too hard. But because they seriously misrepresented the story, their operation was examined, and IIRC they were indicted on some kind of impersonation or misrepresentation charge.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

      Reminds me of this classic ethical question to the NYTimes:

      An inquirer went to a Starbuck’s wanting to buy a regular over-priced cup of coffee, but when the woman in front of the customer ordered a pumpkin-spice latte and received a coupon for a free drink because the shop was out of it, “NAME WITHHELD” ordered a pumpkin-spice latte to get the free coupon. Was this ethical, he/she/it asked?”

      Klosterman’s answer: “No. You’re a liar and a low-rent con artist. And you live in a community where pumpkin-flavored beverages are way too popular.”


  3. Kolohe says:

    Different answer for journalist and law enforcement is easy – journalists don’t have the intention of drawing guns on me to bend me to their will.Report

  4. Kim says:

    I stand with the Mennonites on this one.
    It’s one thing for the law enforcement to attend meetings.
    It’s quite another when the law enforcement actively sabotages a religion.

    Lying for reporting purposes is a bit tricky.
    1) Are you investigating civil or criminal wrongdoing? If so, I’m going to allow you a bit more lattitude.
    2) If you claim that you’re doing work, does it actually get done?

    As it might be apparent, I do know people who have been paid while doing industrial espionage, fact-finding for forensic accounting, and all sorts of interesting fun reporting.

    Should like to strongly urge you to consider your safety before reporting on people who are known murderers.

    Is Jesus Camp a morally reprehensible movie?Report

  5. Vikram Bath says:

    Undercover reporting might be inherently deceptive, but what Tod did wasn’t undercover reporting. If I may quote Tod:

    The official spokesperson for the organization declined to do so, saying that if I wanted to learn about them why didn’t I just go to one of their churches and participate.

    Tod disclosed his intent and simply did what you were instructed to do. It’s possible (OK, 99% likely) that the spokesperson didn’t communicate this to the people he was directing Tod to, but that is on the spokesperson.

    There was a similar situation with an “undercover” Uber driver a while back:

    in January, I applied to be an UberX driver myself.

    I honestly didn’t expect to be approved. The ethics of doing something like this are clear: You can’t lie about who you are. And Uber knew who I was. Earlier, I’d posted on Twitter trying to dig up some Philly-area UberX drivers; spookily, within a couple of hours, Durkosh emailed asking how she could be involved. But nobody noticed my distinctive last name, and nobody asked for my job history — the application was just uploading my car’s information, banking details and my Social Security number for a background check.

    A couple weeks later, I got a text: I was in.

    She had disclosed her name and intentions to the company. If the PR arm didn’t tell the recruitment arm what was going on, that is on them. It’s not your job to facilitate intra-organizational communication.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Vikram Bath says:

      A question, @vikram-bath : What about undercover reporters who are actually deceptive about who they are in an attempt to uncover a story?Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Well, if I think about it as a researcher, we *are* in fact allowed to lie to study participants provided:
        (1) We have approval to lie.
        (2) There is no other practical way to get the information
        (3) The value of the research to society more than makes up for the lying to the study participants.

        3, in my opinion, is pretty important. Deception is bad, but you have to look at the overall results.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

          Who gives approval?Report

          • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

            At my university, it would be the IRB board.Report

            • Yep. Everywhere in the US it’s the IRB. You have to get IRB approval even if all the research itself is happening elsewhere. If you are collaborating with someone from another university, *both* university’s IRBs need to sign off. I didn’t lie to anyone for my dissertation, but I still needed IRB approval. It’s generally regarded as a big annoying mess by everyone involved, including those who serve on the IRB.

              But the flip side is that unethical research still does get conducted. IRBs are the result of decades of abuses.

              For a journalist, I guess the equivalent would be getting an editor to sign off on your plan. For a freelance journalist…I dunno. Ask your blog audience? 🙂Report

        • Maribou in reply to Vikram Bath says:

          FYI, if anyone is (as I was) interested in finding out more about when people are allowed to lie to study participants, there’s a detailed explanation /policy from Virginia Tech’s institutional review board here here.Report

        • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

          IRB boards don’t exist to settle ethical dilemmas. They exist to cover a university’s ass in case of lawsuit.

          I see no issue with trolling as a way to conduct research “in the wild”Report

  6. although the IRS (and thus the federal government) recognizes this organization as a religion, most outsiders refer to it as a cult.

    Not to your point, but I am bemused by the distinction made here. This is even apart from the traditional sense of “cult,” taking it in its current use. It would never have occurred to me that the group in question is not a religion. My understanding of the modern sense of “cults” has them as a subset of, or at least with a large intersection with, religions.Report

    • Autolukos in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I have to agree: cult is a subset of religion, not a different sort of thing.Report

    • @richard-hershberger Out of curiosity, what is it about scientology, specifically, that you would never question whether or not it is a religion? Or perhaps, what definition of religion are you using to make you not question this?

      I do not necessarily agree with accusations that Scientology is not a religion, but I confess I find a statement that it is unquestionably one to be odd, considering.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I don’t claim to have a fully developed definition of what is or is not a religion. On a pragmatic level, if a group puts itself forward as being a religion and has a belief system based on non-disprovable assertions (often intermingled with disprovable and disproven assertions, but that is a different discussion) (and not to suggest that Popper is the be-all and end-all, but he works well at least on the rule of thumb level), then sure: it is a religion.

        If you try to split “cult” out into a separate category you quickly run into problems. There is a group that wears distinctive clothing, lives in “colonies” located far from major urban centers, educates its children within these colonies, and members of the colonies own all property communally, the individuals having no personal property. This can’t go well, right? It sounds like a situation where the feds will be moving in any day now. But I just described the Hutterites, a Mennonite Christian sect that has been around for centuries. They have been living in the United States since the Grant administration. They clearly have managed to establish a mode of living that is stable, despite looking incredibly cultish.

        By way of comparison, look up Sovereign Grace Ministries. From the outside they look like a group well within the mainstream of American Evangelical Protestantism. Indeed, and sadly, this may be the case. But look closer and they turn out to be extremely cultish, and not in that wholesome Hutterite way.

        I can’t think of any principled reason to disqualify either the Hutterites or SGM from the category of “religion.”Report

        • Guy in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          You could do the split in a manner that allows a group to be both cultish and religious (which would still make Todd’s disclaimer a bit odd). I think that might have some value. Your definition captures “religion” pretty well, but as you say, it doesn’t get cults.

          How would you feel about the following definition? We could say a cult is “any organization which seeks to isolate its members from members of other organizations by way of argument or coercion of those members, especially by argument to the effect that outsiders are inferior”.

          Again, it’s not perfect, but it captures what I think is the most important classification: deliberate isolation of members from outsiders.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        The thing about religion is that it has to be taken on faith. If I have a religion that is basing the majority of it’s teaching on things it claims are science/scientific, then it isn’t a religion. It is, at best, a research organization, and at worst, it’s fecking AmWay.Report

    • @richard-hershberger I had a prof once who said “cult is a name for groups that are full of esoteric information, which society does not approve of. religion is a name for groups that are full of esoteric information, which society does approve of. good luck finding anything that self-identifies as a religion that isn’t full of esoteric information.”

      said prof was a practicing Christian, and I don’t think he meant there weren’t good reasons for society to approve or disapprove of various groups – he was just trying to shake people out of their assumptions a bit.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Maribou says:

        By this taxonomy, is Zen Buddhism — which is full of esoteric information, but does not self-identify as a religion but rather as a “teaching tradition” — count as either?Report

        • Maribou in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Well, first, honestly, there are many types of Zen Buddhism that certainly DO seem religious to me, as an outsider, particularly the American flavors. My ex-Zen-monk-in-Japan-for-13-years nisei Asian religions prof had no issues with teaching it as a religion either – I asked him about that once – though obviously he was not orthodox ;).

          Secondly, X is a name for Y, doesn’t mean all X *must* be called Y. Perhaps that they could be, but since the prof’s point was that neither name was as accurate as it should be, I think the logic wiggles through your snare :D.Report

    • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      The difference between a cult and a religion is that a cult still has assassins.
      (A religion has enough cultural stability to not need deadly thought police).Report

      • How does this relate to the Thirty Years War?Report

        • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          Not terribly applicable, as that was more a power struggle and less of a Church Police game. The inquisition, on the other hand, is quite applicable — though significantly more to the Spanish (zealots) than to the Italian (who were more content to simply excommunicate people).

          Currently, the Catholic church has a really complex web of favors owed WRT organized Italian crime, but they don’t really use them.

          (And by this metric, both the Scientologists and the Mormons are cults).Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    So I went to wikipedia to find examples of undercover journalism that I could hold up as counter-examples to what you and James O’Keefe did.

    I found this list of the supposed “nine elements of journalsim”:

    Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.
    Its first loyalty is to the citizens.
    Its essence is discipline of verification.
    Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
    It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
    It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
    It must strive to make the news significant, interesting, and relevant.
    It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
    Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

    It seems that what you did pretty much meets these standards. You’re okay.

    I find myself wishing that more articles did what you did.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Jaybird says:

      Journalism’s first obligation is to turn a profit.
      Its first loyalty is to remaining gainfully employed.
      Its essence is discipline of ambivalence.
      Its practitioners must maintain a fealty to the editor.
      It must serve as a lapdog of the advertisers.
      It must provide a forum for public cronyism and concession.
      It must strive to make the banal significant, interesting, and relevant.
      It must keep the news oversimplified and self-important.
      Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal alcoholism.


      News as She Is ReportedReport

  8. Doctor Jay says:

    If one feels that “to do good one must often violate ethical principles”, I contend that maybe they weren’t such good principles.

    This is why I feel things are better expressed as values, because values can conflict, and an individual needs to determine which of those conflicting values gets to be satisfied.

    As a concrete example, I came up with Mennonites (and I’m delighted to see @kim name-check them). They are pacifistic in an absolute sense. And so was I for a long time. Now that absolute rule has been downgraded to a very strong value placed in non-violence. I feel an absolute rule of pacifism ends up being quite selfish. So I still hold a very high standard for application of violence, I will admit that there are a few situations where violence does, in fact, solve the problem, and is probably the best course of action.

    So back to Tod, I think your behavior was fine. Yes, there was a bit of bad faith involved, but it was the smallest that you could make it, concordant with your goals. Honestly, I find a church which requires a membership “test” before you attend even one service to be a bit … odd.Report

    • Maribou in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I have never found principles that didn’t conflict with some other principles. no reason to ditch a perfectly good word from the language, just because it runs into trouble from time to time.Report

    • Kim in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Not having looked, I assert rather blindly that everyone probably gets in under the “membership test” and that it is merely a psychological trick to encourage commitment.Report

  9. Kazzy says:

    What of mystery shoppers/diners? If you aren’t familiar with this industry, third party companies hire individuals (probably as contractors… they’re usually paid per task) to go shop at businesses and restaurants — at the paid request of those businesses and restaurants — as a means of quality control.

    So, Mystery Shopper Inc. pays me $20 plus the cost of my food to go to a local McDonalds, order a BigMac with no cheese, and report back if the BigMac indeed arrived sans cheese and if my server properly asked me if I wanted to super size my meal and if I was interested in their new McBiggerMac. I report that information to Mystery Shopper Inc which in turn reports it back to McDonalds, who does whatever they want with the data. Shoppers/diners are instructed to keep the nature of their visit secret from the staff they interact with.

    Is anyone acting unethically in that situation?Report

    • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think the businesses and contractors are acting unethically because they are pre-emptively expressing a lack of trust in their employees and/or franchisees.

      Mystery shoppers might be precluded from going HEY I’M A MYSTERY SHOPPER, but they are not being required to lie in the service of their aims, assuming they are keeping / enjoying the merchandise in question. Weirdly, if they ordered the Big Mac and then tossed it, I’d feel differently. I don’t mind them squealing, I mind them only interacting BECAUSE they want to be squealing. (Personal interactions, I feel, are different. It wouldn’t be ok to “mystery shop” me to test if I was willing to fish customers, for eg, even though in my particular case, I am under a moral *obligation* not to do so with most of our customers and I’ve agreed not to. [But, given my previous description, “mystery shopping” me this way if there was reasonable concern that I *was* doing so, would be a lesser evil in service of a greater good.]

      There are theoretical WAYS for companies to use this kind of mystery shopping data that are respectful to the people you are mystery shopping, but I’ve rarely seen that done (if ever). If I found out I was being mystery shopped, I would do my best to get the policy overturned. If I couldn’t get the policy overturned, I would probably quit, given that my employer talks A LOT about being a great place to work and being transparent. (Not talking flipping tables, but I’d be looking for another place to live.) I have the right not to be mystery shopped, and I won’t work somewhere where that’s the case.

      (And that’s considering that I am, at all times, aware that my behavior is repping for my department and that anyone I interact with might choose to make complaints to anyone else on campus, or the gd newspaper for that matter…. but being mystery shopped is different.)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


        Does it change if the person DOES eat the BigMac but only went to McDonalds because they were a mystery shopper? If they wouldn’t otherwise have eaten there… that day or in general… does that matter?Report

        • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

          @kazzy I think at that point (actually well before that point) we are into the weeds of personal conscience. But I do think there is a spectrum that runs between accepting 20 bucks extra to tell someone about how things went without having intended to beforehand, taking the money in advance to disclose how things went with something you were going to do anyway, or making a career out of spying on people.

          The thing about individuals is that I think it’s damn hard to judge their actions from outside, in any situation, because of my belief in the whole people-get-to-decide-their-own-greater-good-even-if-they-turn-out-to-be-wrong thing. So any given bad actor might be acting badly because of some more stringent ethical requirement that I don’t know about, OR because they are just a jerk. I can make guesses (and am almost REQUIRED on my own terms to make those guesses, in order to act), but at the end of the day I really don’t know whether or not they are, overall, behaving ethically.

          Which I guess is a longwinded way of saying that I would never touch any money anywhere that had anything to do with mystery shopping, because of how obnoxious I find it as a practice, but any given mystery shopper (or, even, SOME corporation somewhere in THEORY) might have no ethical choice but to do it.

          What do YOU think the answers are?

          (It disturbs me how much I love this kind of discussion. Does it show that I had a minor in history of religion and had to take a bunch of theology classes?)Report

          • Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

            And – of course – the minute I thought about ” that I would never touch any money anywhere that had anything to do with mystery shopping,” my brain started providing me with circumstances under which I would (no matter how plausible or implausible) and logical arguments about whether I would even KNOW, and if I knew, if I wouldn’t be too lazy to deal with indirect cases… what if my workplace accepted a huge donation from a mystery shopping company? etc.

            Sometimes life as a people-centered nonjudgmental-ish introvert who thinks too much is darn confusing.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


              Thanks for the talk and trust I’ll come back with a more in-depth response later. But I’m curious if the calculus changes for you or @gabriel-conroy if, instead of a “mystery shopper”, the company sends in an in-house person undercover? What about something like “Undercover Boss”?

              Does it matter if employees are informed in advance that the company utilizes undercover shoppers/diners/evaluators?Report

              • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

                I think that’s worse, undercover in-house, because I think good working environments and experiences depend intensely on trust relationships being able to be formed with open information and people’s cards on the table as much as they feel comfortable putting them there based on their sense of each other. In that situation you are either making fake trust (which I feel will redound to larger amounts of damage down the road), if the person does a great job of tricking people, or making bumps in the trust if they are bad at it and people can tell something is off. Think of the sense of betrayal if someone you thought was a work confidant goes and tells some higher-up what you said in an unflattering light … and then multiply by 100, basically.

                It helps if employees are clearly informed BEFORE BEING HIRED (not buried in small print somewhere), because then at least they are giving quasi-consent by taking the job. (For eg, in my case, I would NOT take the job unless I really really needed to, and I would treat it much differently and more distantly – being secretly or quasi-secretly surveilled is one of the experiences I most seek to avoid when I can (I get enough of that from the government and my childhood flashbacks). It helps, but a lot less, if it’s like a week’s notice or something, in that it gives people a chance to be “on their guard” – but if people are “on their guard” you are fishing up your information anyway, because some people are LESS good at their jobs if they’re feeling paranoid (eg me), some people are much BETTER at them, etc etc etc – so it’s not very useful in that case.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:


                Pat of the reason I asked was because I was recently asked to spend time in other teachers’ classrooms under somewhat false pretenses. My response evolved from hesitant to refusal. It is possible there was some miscommunication about the initial request (though three other teachers in the same position and party to the same conversation walked away with the same impression) but ultimately doing anything under false pretenses was not something I was comfortable with. Would it have been unethical? I don’t know. But I wasn’t willing to do it for a host of reasons.

                That said, I don’t think 100% transparency is necessary 100% of the time for a healthy organization. I believe there are times it is appropriate — prudent even — to keep certain information under wraps and this may sometimes require deception. Too often institutions fall pack on the rationale to justify deception (or worse) when it isn’t necessary.

                As to mystery shoppers, I believe you touched on this… but it strikes me that an organization that doesn’t feel it can properly evaluate its employees without subterfuge probably has broader trust issues. Now, the “Hawthorne effect” is real and there will also be issues with explicit observation and evaluation. But I think there are better ways to account for this without the level of deception involved with mystery shoppers.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Kazzy says:

                Yeah, I think our perspectives have a lot in common.

                I agree that open information and putting cards on the table does NOT have to mean 100 percent information all the time, and that the need to keep stuff under wraps is used as flimsy justification a lot.

                For examples of places where the ethical thing is to keep stuff under wraps, I recently had to be involved with a title nine complaint (as a witness). I had to be super open and there was a whole lot I couldn’t be told and will never know. that made me super uncomfortable, but I know how the various laws work and I understand why I couldn’t know things. I also trust the people that were heading the investigation, and I have faith that they gave me the pertinent and allowable information I needed to do my job going forward.

                And I have ZERO problems with someone logging a disruptive patron who is being nasty into a computer (implying or saying that they have an hour to use the computer) and then going into the back and calling the campus police to come and kick the patron off the campus and ban them from patronhood forever more … because that someone is acting to protect the physical and emotional safety of themselves and all the other people in the library.

                Like you (I think), what frustrates me the most is how much effort is put into deliberately deceiving people unnecessarily. It’s one thing to fire someone, another to claim they’ve voluntarily taken early retirement, against their known wishes. The latter is both unethical AND downright stupid as to effects on morale. (And oh, the myriad of other examples I could give.)Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Maribou says:

                One of the biggest issues I have with lying is bad liars. I’ve been lied to by people where it is disgustingly obvious I’m being lied to. And what bugs me the most is the presumption that I’m not going to see through the obvious BS.

                Either tell me the deal or be up front and tell me that you can’t tell me the deal. But don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. That can destroy morale.

                “Let’s all wish Jenny luck as she pursues her dream to open a knitting store!”
                [after the meeting]
                “Can you believe they fired Jenny?”
                “And think we’re dumb enough to think they didn’t?”
                “Maybe she had to go… but did they have to lie to everyone?”Report

              • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

                How does this pertain to “corporate paid for” hacking? That’s subterfuge, sure… but it’s also just basic “we’re checking on your systems, dude.”Report

              • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:

                I guess the undercover boss thing depends. When I worked at an inbound call center for a bank, our immediate supervisors would occasionally act as customers on the phone to see if we were cross-selling financial “products” like we were supposed to do. It was usually ridiculously easy to know if it were one of our supervisors (it was a small worksite and we all knew each other), and even the supervisors seemed to do it because they had to.

                As for advanced notice, I should say that in most low-waged jobs I’ve had, being surveiled was a constant and a given, so mystery shopping is just one more thing.Report

              • Maribou in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                Oh, yeah, I know my feelings on this are pretty extreme. I actually think all kinds of surveillance are detrimental to relationships and thus should be very carefully employed (far more carefully than we currently do). I ALSO think that if companies can make promises about how surveillance will be used (only if, for eg, they are trying to understand a crime – and not used to punish minor mess-ups they then accidentally discover), AND their employees have reason to trust said companies, a lot of the harm is mitigated. I show up on camera at this job all the time, but I also know there isn’t a camera in my office. If there was a camera in my office, I would be pissed off. I goof off at work sometimes (usually when my creative hindbrain needs to focus on something) and I trust my company not to be reading my emails WITH INTEREST even though they are reading my emails… etc.

                But in my ideal world things would never get big enough to need non-physical-safety-related surveillance of any kind.

                It’s a pipedream, but most ethical systems are founded on pipedreams.Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kazzy says:


      I mostly sign on to @maribou ‘s take, although she brings up a lot of things I hadn’t thought of before, especially whether the mystery shopper is actually acting ethically.

      My go-to when it comes to mystery shopping is the fast food scenario you and Mairbou were discussing. Those workers are treated so poorly, I do think it’s wrong to add to it by mystery shopping them.

      While this isn’t the same thing, I have probably never complained to management about how I’ve been treated by a customer service rep or fast food worker or when I see a bus or company car run a red light or otherwise drive crazily because I don’t want to get the worker in trouble. I can imagine instances where I probably should complain and where I want to, but I really try not to. And as far as I can recall, I don’t think I have.Report

    • Kim in reply to Kazzy says:

      When I first went to Las Vegas, there was a whisper campaign amongst the servers saying that I was a mystery shopper. Got better tables, we did.Report

  10. trizzlor says:

    What about research studies that hide the true purpose of the study? Milgram, for example, is an interesting case because he quickly saw that his studies were causing people mental anguish but continued to administer them. It was absolutely essential that he continue.Report

    • Maribou in reply to trizzlor says:

      Essential to whom? I’m sure he did think he was acting for a greater good. That’s why we *have* internal review boards these days, and I think it’s also part of the reason why traditionally undercover reporters (or maybe not traditionally – undercover reporters I’ve admired might be more accurate?) – anyway, part of the reason why they have to talk to their editors about how they are doing things. So that no one gets caught up in their own personal Quixotic quest that is, actually, not noble but awful.Report

      • Kim in reply to Maribou says:

        IRBs exist to cover a university’s ass. And because feeding illegal drugs to underage kids is all sorts of bad press.Report

        • Maribou in reply to Kim says:

          @kim Yes, I agree that’s why they exist. Perhaps I should’ve phrased things differently. But I don’t think “how this came into existence” and “its functional purpose and/or effect” are coterminous. While IRBs may be compromised or corrupted to some degree, the people who serve on them more often than not do *want* to make a moral difference to the institution’s efforts, because they are a giant pain in the rear to be on and they are exhausting and full of snarling and extra politics.

          So I have found that the people making *decisions* on an IRB are actually likely to be making a positive difference to the net ethicality of the sum of research being done.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Maribou says:

        Sorry, that last sentence was just a play on the fact that Milgram told his cases that “it is absolutely essential that the experiment continue” to get them to continue administering shocks.

        In seriousness, I don’t know how I would IRB the Milgram experiment (or the many replications). It’s clearly ground-breaking work that could not be performed without deception. Does it need to be performed 100 times though? Does it cross a line in terms of mental anguish? Is it coercion if you create social pressure for someone to act (but never actually force them to do so)?Report

        • Maribou in reply to trizzlor says:

          Yeah, I recognized that you were quoting him but still felt the need to pursue the quotation.

          Without hindsight, it would be hard to IRB back THEN, because I’m sure most people sincerely thought that it would never fall out the way that it did. (This is a constant problem with IRBs, of course.)

          Ironically, Milgram’s own experiment should’ve shut down the replicators getting past IRB, because being glad you did something in retrospect (or at least feeling the need to claim to experimenters that you had learned from your thought-to-be-terrible-by-you-at-the-time behavior, in retrospect) isn’t enough.

          “Does it cross a line in terms of mental anguish? ”

          Milgram’s own reports of the behavior of the people being tested seem to indicate it. “The procedure created extreme levels of nervous tension in some Ss. Profuse sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance. ”

          This is a pretty interesting article on Milgram’s place in his field**, which includes the point (among others) that part of the problem with unethical research is that by definition if you think it was unethical, it becomes unethical to disprove it by attempting to replicate it. And if you alter it to be more ethical, you’re not disproving it. So, insofar as sociology is wanting to be “scientific”, consensus-unethical experiments really should not make an impact on the field, or on allied fields, because they aren’t (ethically) falsifiable. Of course it doesn’t work that way.

          ** The one thing that really irritated me is that the author says Milgram jeopardized his legacy by making it so easy to attack his stuff (through leaving behind copious documentation). This strikes me as either a profound misunderstanding of the philosophy and ethics of science, or a desire to turn a pretty, balanced phrase at the expense of fairly representing a situation. Grr.Report

    • Chris in reply to trizzlor says:

      Deception is a.) a part of perhaps the majority of psychological studies, b.) strictly and extensively monitored and discussed among researchers and ethics boards, and c.) comes with requirements for disclosure (debriefing) and follow-up (if necessary).Report

  11. Murali says:

    Depends on whether corporations or other organisations have a right to privacy. Also depends on how far this right to privacy extends and how it interacts with issues pertaining to fraud. This is the first hurdle to cross. After that, it might be a matter of consequences.

    When I deceive people(e.g. members of an organisation) it is, usually, some sort of harm. When I reveal things that they want kept secret, it is another sort of harm. Normally, the interests that are harmed would secure rights against their violation, but this may not extend to groups of people (issues of group agency get a bit more complicated*). Supposing that the person or persons being investigated have no right against investigation, then what remains is what good might be done by such investigation and consequently what good might be done by revealing privileged information.

    Depending on what is being investigated, it might turn out that journalism is indeed different from police investigation. Obviously no right to privacy ever extends so far as to make it wrong for you to reveal information about murders etc. Yet, there might be lesser wrongs which in certain circumstances is still covered by the right to privacy. There are also cases where socially embarrassing facts do not involve wrong doing at all, for instance issues with regards to sexual orientation. An undercover reporter trying to check if some public figure is gay would be wrong. It would likewise also be wrong for the reporter to out the figure if that figure was indeed gay or was a swinger or whatever. This doesn’t even touch the issue that people may want to keep information private even if they have nothing wrong or socially embarrassing to hide.

    Another thing that cops have going for them is that unless you are an anarchist, there are some things that is permissible for the state that is not permissible between private individuals. The state may in some circumstances take away your freedom of movement. We don’t afford private citizens the same permission to do the same**. It does not follow that there is nothing wrong with undercover police operations. Undercover operations in the service of prosecuting individuals for crimes that ought not to be crimes are unethical. Undercover operations which involve entrapping the purported criminal are also unethical. But that is a separate issue from the issue of approaching people on deceptive grounds. If your are going to use and deceive people, you better have a really good reason for it. Preventing some much more serious wrong can be a good reason. Satisfying our voyeuristic impulses isn’t

    Now, the kind of open day that church was having is not necessarily a different sort of thing. To the extent that the church was not doing anything too unethical, it has an interest in being treated with honestly. Approaching under false pretext uses those particular church members (or some relevant subset of them) as mere means. Even if we’re not Kantian enough to think that this is always wrong, it makes intuitive sense that this is going to be wrong in a lot of cases (we would not want it to happen to us.)

    Even more, they also have a standing interest in not having their embarrassing bits exposed to the public. This is the part where their opening themselves to the public waives any claim they have against others exposing them since they expose themselves already.

    I think, that once we try to articulate what is being done in at least some of undercover journalism, we get a somewhat surprising conclusion. Undercover journalism has an unethical core. The pathologies of modern journalism manifest overtly in the ugliness we call the paparazzi. But the rot runs deeper.

    *Actually we may not even have to get to group agency at all. If a bunch of people engage in an orgy and some of them want this kept from the larger public, we don’t have to presume any dodgy account of group agency to believe that those people who did not want that information publicised would be harmed by such publication.

    **This might mean that we should be anarchists but I will assume that this is not the case.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Murali says:

      What is: Lawful Neutral.

      (wait, wrong thread).

      Murali always brings a tear to my jaded Catholic eye for the Rawlsian liberalism we never had. And I mean that as true homage for the consistency of thought.Report

      • Murali in reply to Marchmaine says:


        Perhaps its a case of fish not knowing that they are wet, and I certainly am some kind of Rawlsian liberal, but where is the Rawlsian liberalism in what I wrote above?Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Murali says:

          @murali How is it not? 🙂

          Not to suggest you are making a strict Rawlsian point, but Rawlsian notions of justice seem pretty well shot through in the reasoning, no?

          So, possibly it is, as you say, a case a fish not knowing you are wet… but I’m also willing to admit that it might be a case of Rawls and his ilk all smelling like fish to my untrained nose.Report

  12. Morat20 says:

    Offhand, undercover reporting shouldn’t even be considered unless there is no method to get the information without it.

    Second, the benefits of it should be strongly considered — is the merits of whatever you are investigating worth it? Are you just doing a filler piece about some local group? Are you investigating potential criminal wrongdoing? Bluntly, what are the stakes — and are they worth being deceptive over?

    And lastly, as a few other people mentioned, if you DO — you have an absolute requirement to report it fully and faithfully. No hiding inconvenient bits, no deceptive editing, no attempts to embellish or pad your point — and you should be willing to lay out WHY you thought undercover reporting was so necessary.

    In this case, while the stakes weren’t particularly high, you attempted to go through the legitimate channels first, and your undercover work stuck purely to the publicly available options. No sneaking around, no fake names, no lying about your background, no infiltrating it as a worker…you chose to basically go as “minimally” undercover as possible.

    I don’t think you could have done anything more, ethically (like pretended to convert, etc) without having a pretty good reason.Report

    • Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

      So, you think Jesus Camp is immoral because of lack of disclosure?Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        Not having seen or read it, whatever it is, I couldn’t tell you.

        Like I said, the ethics of undercover work are a balancing act — it shouldn’t even be considered if the information could be gotten another way. If you must go undercover, then the question arises “Is this information worth the level of deception I need to go through to get it?”

        The piece here was minimally deceptive (he withheld information but never lied, stuck to publicaly available parts — in short, he simply didn’t disclose he was a journalist. He otherwise got standard public access), which roughly matched the criticality of the information.

        If, on the other hand, he was investigating a cult to determine the validity of rumors of abuse, assault, etc — he could certainly justify a far greater level of deception. (As long as the end story was fair. There’s undoubtedly a sunk cost problem — you go undercover and turn up nothing but some weird religious beliefs, which makes it hard not to report it — even though what you actually found wasn’t balanced by the dishonesty you had to use to get it).

        There’s no hard and fast rules. There’s just — or should be — an awareness of the ethical problems inherent in undercover work, and a willingness to think about whether information sought (or gained) was worth the price everyone involved paid.Report

        • Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

          Point, i should review it.
          It basically was a documentary that used a substantial quantity of surveillance video that the participants were not aware they were being recorded in. The surveillance video was for the operators of the Camp…Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Kim says:

            Clearly the biggest ethics violation was that of the Camp (secretly recording). If you created a documentary on that, I’d say you’d need to blur faces/voices or seek waivers from those who were filmed unknowingly at a bare minimum.

            Those kids were victims, after all. Or adults. I suppose I shouldn’t assume a camp is just for kids if it’s got cult-like vibes to it.Report

  13. Saul Degraw says:

    While I can see why their would be ethical issues and attempts at entrapment by ideologically motivated fellows (James O’Keefe), it seems to me that more good than harm comes from undercover reporting and finding scandals and cover-ups. Also huge amounts of reform.Report

  14. aaron david says:

    From reading your post, I would first of all say that you never acted unethically. But, had you made no attempt to identify yourself as a writer, then you would be in that grey area, neither right nor wrong. Lying to availe yourself of the services offered, a la O’Keefe, is not ethically wrong per say as it is from that point the respondents responsibility to act appropriately for the position they are in. Also, had you falsely stated that you converted, and falsely joined soley to write about it, then you would possibly be acting unethically in your position as it could effect 3rd partys who are not scientologists. That is the grey area, the representing yourself to others not directly involved as X when you are not X.Report

  15. I have yet to read the comments, but I’ll just say that seeing my writing excerpted like that is a reminder that I need to write more clearly!Report

  16. LeeEsq says:

    Undercover reporting has the same ethical problems as intelligence work even if the impact is less. Intelligence work is seen by many as a something of a necessary evil for defense. Some people really like it, others think that we can do without it, “gentleman do not read other gentleman’s mail”, but most of us recognize it as something that must be done on occasion even if we don’t like it. Undercover reporting is basically spying for journalism purposes and it is intrusion into privacy in the same way intelligence work is. It can reveal some very useful information though on occasion and this can lead to good.Report

  17. North says:

    I would assert your undercover behavior was in no way unethical. Scientology makes a point of asserting that its tenants and methods are valuable and applicable to all with no caveats. They further invite people to try out their tests and entry level applications without caveats. Implicit in that is that Scientology thinks its tenants and methods are applicable to cynics, skeptics and even enemies of their organization and that they are inviting said cynics, skeptics and even enemies to try those tests out. Since Scientology is extending an open invitation to all to try out the test no one who accepts said invitation is crossing an ethical line even if they are predisposed to write something critical or expose like about Scientology.

    If you walk into McDonalds and buy a Big Mac then take it home and test it for botulism you are not doing something unethical because McDonalds asserts that their Big Macs are tasty and good for everyone. Same for Scientology.

    Though I wonder how many phone calls and emails our Todd is going to get. Everything I’ve heard about Scientology is that their telemarketing arm is implacable, relentless and pervasive.Report

    • Kim in reply to North says:

      Getting phone calls isn’t terribly problematic.
      Death “threats” from an organization that has follow-through… that’s quite a bit more scary.Report

  18. Stillwater says:

    Is undercover reporting inherently unethical, even if it is perhaps necessary?

    Is it inherently unethical to lie to the German Nazzzzies to protect the Jews hidden in the attic?


  19. j r says:

    Is undercover reporting inherently unethical, even if it is perhaps necessary?

    Nothing is inherently unethical. It’s all about what you do in a situation that defines the ethics. If ethics were so uncomplicated as to define a whole class of activity as unethical, then we wouldn’t actually need ethics. We could just carve a bunch of rules on a piece of stone and call it a day.

    The ethics of undercover reporting is in the details of the undercover work and of the reporting that results. If you use a source in a way that unfairly compromises that source, then you’re being unethical. If you do something illegal, being a “journalist” shouldn’t be cover. It shouldn’t give you any sort of special immunity. If only we could do something about the cops, but a different conversation.

    From what you’ve describes, Tod, you haven’t done anything unethical. What you did sounds akin to an anonymous restaurant critic eating at the restaurant he intends to review. If some institution is open to the public, then you have the right to go in and see what they’re about.Report

  20. Burt Likko says:

    When I teach business ethics, I instruct my students to apply a three lens test to any proposed activity. Let’s try that here. Most folks here are already familiar with basic utilitarianism, deontology, and Aristotelean virtue ethics so I’ll skip the foundational explanations. Is it ethical for @tod-kelly to decline to volunteer that he is involving himself in church activities for research and journalistic purposes, and not to explore the possibility of joining the church, thus leaving the clinic with the impression of Our Tod having had actual interest in the religion?

    1. Does the activity generate net utility?

    Seems so. The missionary has the task of informing other people about the religion, and then attempting to gain converts to the religion based on the information provided. Here, the personality tests are used as a tool to assist recruitment. But the real work is done later, in personal interactions between the test taker and the missionary. Tod surely cannot have been the first person to take the test who did not convert, despite hours of deployment of sales techniques. So the missionary builds into the task of obtaining converts the knowledge that a certain percentage of conversion attempts will fail. Still, there is the possibility that the missionary could have been engaged in attempts to convert someone else that would have been successful. This is not unlike someone who pretends to go shopping for a car, takes a test drive, and then successfully endures a sales pitch afterwards never having intended to buy the car in the first place. The disutility there is wasting the sales person’s time. Did Tod waste the missionary’s time? It doesn’t seem so, because the missionary succeeded in his mission of informing Tod about the religion, and under the circumstances it appears that the missionary genuinely enjoyed his conversation with Tod. Meanwhile, Tod got the information that as a journalist he was searching for. Therefore, it appears that net utility was generated.

    2. Is the activity subject to practical universalization?

    Clearly so. As many other people have noted above, journalists and other people looking to obtain information use techniques more aggressively deceptive than this all the time. Mystery shoppers, undercover bosses, journalists, academic researchers, and law enforcement all do things to gather information without revealing that this is their true intent. Were they to reveal their true intent, information that they would gather would be different, and less useful. Further, Tod makes clear that if he had been asked, he would have identified himself as a journalist and if he had been asked, he would have revealed that he was doing research and not exploring the potential for personal conversion. And more to the point, Tod was doing things that did not involve personal wrongdoing, and seeking to be treated exactly the way that the subject of his inquiry would have treated anyone else. Because of those facts, we don’t need to confront issues of entrapment, affirmative deception, or other intentional manipulation of the subject.

    3. Is the activity consistent with the habits of a thriving, fulfilled journalist?

    Here, the nine tenets of good journalism @jaybird refers to above are informative. If these do a comprehensive job of reciting the “whys” and “hows” of virtuous journalism, Tod’s actions appear to be consistent with them. He maintained his independence from the church he was investigating, accurately gathered and disseminated information about the church and the way it exercises its power to the citizenry at large, and provides a forum for the people who read his reporting to evaluate what they learned therein on their own.

    A short-form way of looking at this would be to ask whether the passive deception was material to the transaction. Would the missionary have provided different information at the missionary been told the entire truth? There are two realistic possibilities here: first, the missionary would have disseminated the same information, and second, the missionary would have provided no information at all, and instead referred Tod back to the public relations officer who had previously been unhelpful. But it does not seem realistic that the missionary would have preceded but performed a conversion attempt in a way different then he would have otherwise. Tod would have said, “The public relations office sent me here to actually participate. So what they wanted was for you to tell me why Scientology is right for me.” The conversion would likely then have proceeded the same way. So I don’t think that this deception was material: The missionary did not do anything different from what he otherwise would have done.

    Ethical pass.Report

    • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I suppose you find corporate espionage to be unethical?Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

        Depends on how that term is defined in practice. One can call all sorts of things “corporate espionage.”

        To the extent that sabotage, and theft of intellectual property are the objectives of the activity, the proponent of the action is going to have a mighty difficult explanation to offer to satisfy me.Report

    • That’s an excellent, thoughtful comment, @burt-likko . And the case is very compelling, so much so that what you say, and what others have said, is starting to change my mind. I do think there are some chinks in your argument that while not fatal to your argument, could be addressed further.

      First, you suggest that Tod isn’t wasting the missionary’s time. I’m not so sure he isn’t. As you point out toward the end of your comment, it’s a realistic possibility that the missionary would not have disseminated the information at all.

      Second, you query whether Tod’s actions are consistent with being “a thriving, fulfilled journalist,” and use Jaybird’s litany as a shorthand for what that would look like. The first item on the litany is

      Journalism’s first obligation is to tell the truth.

      It’s easy for me to take that in isolation and use it as a gotcha and it would be wrong for me to do so. After all, there are other responsibilities listed in the litany and this “first obligation” is more plausibly read as “to tell the truth [in what the journalist writes]” as opposed to “to tell the truth [while gathering information].” [ETA: That said, there seems to be something categorical about it that creates a presumption that it’s better not to deceive and I agree with others in this thread who suggest that deception would be wrong if the information could be gotten in some other way.]

      As I said, I don’t think these quibbles are fatal to the point you’re making. And I think your overall point pretty much answers my earlier, tentative worries about Tod’s deception (if we can even really call it deception).Report

  21. Will H. says:

    @tod-kelly : I’ll give you a direct answer before I go back through to read the comments:

    There are gray lines with both journalism and law enforcement, and I don’t think you strayed near any gray areas.
    You were an invitee, without regard to whether the invitation was meant to be accepted, and you took no unfair advantage of them. In fact, you could have just went in to the public facilities without bothering to ask; but I’d say you went the extra mile, and were under no obligation to go another.
    And yet you did, in keeping Mr. Henry’s statements at the personal, confidential level (though overall impressions are fair game, if stated accurately).
    There was no active deception on your part, nor was there any active omission, as there was no positive duty to disclose.
    Further, there was no harm that arose as a matter of what disclosures you made as a result of any indirect omissions.

    Short answer: No.Report

  22. Patrick says:

    Before I dig into the comment thread, I would like to offer an observation that ethics and morality are simply by design two things that are not always entirely aligned, and it is arguable that they should be.

    One hopes that one’s morality informs one’s ethics, and vice-versa, but if they were the same thing we would have two different words for them.


    It is possibly acceptable to commit an individual fault of morality to pursue an ethical goal, because the ethical goal itself is reflective and informed by a different principle of morality (this can happen even within the same moral framework). This is why a defense attorney who has a personal conviction that his client may be actually guilty still has an ethical obligation to defend that client with all of their ability; because your individual assessment in a particular case may be wrong, and for the general case to succeed, you have to subsume your own moral judgment in that individual case to the ethical guidelines for the general case. There are numerous examples in medical ethics, as well.Report

    • Maribou in reply to Patrick says:

      @patrick “if they were the same thing we would have two different words for them”

      Was that just a typo or were you deliberately undercutting your own claim because you’re well aware that English is the bastard child of Norman French and er, I forget which exact stage the other one was – Old English? – and as such we have at LEAST two words for many thousands of same things?Report

    • Gabriel Conroy in reply to Patrick says:

      Here’s how I look at the distinction:

      If you do something unethical, you get sued. If you do something immoral, you go to hell.

      That said, we–and I–conflate the two all the time. When I said “unethical” in my original comment, I think I meant “immoral” more than I meant “goes against the standards of acceptable professional practice for journalists.”

      In other words, I agree with your comment.Report

  23. Adrian says:

    Since any specific comment on the OP will inevitably get lost in the 90 or so comments already speaking to the point, I will offer one thing.

    This reminds me of the book The Devil Is A Gentlemen … if you’re interested in people going undercover into cults a such, it’s a solid, short read. It’s philosophical and sympathetic — the author takes William James as his guide. Anywho, good stuff.Report

  24. The comments here and at Tod’s Blinded Trials post have convinced me that I was wrong to say that Tod was crossing an ethical line in what he was doing. There is still something about it that makes me uneasy. Or rather, there was something about the thread in response to Tod’s original Blinded Trials post that made me uneasy. But I was wrong to play the “ethical card.”

    I’d also like to thank Tod for presenting my view in the most charitable way possible, much more than my original comment probably deserved.Report

  25. DavidTC says:

    I’m a little baffled by this entire concept.

    I agree there are lines with religion that you should be hesitant to cross, such as, perhaps, lying about how you feel about certain things. Don’t claim to have a specific religious belief you don’t have.

    I don’t see any ethical lines in *going to public things*, religious or secret shopper or anything, as if you were merely a member of the public. There is, perhaps, some sort of ‘wasting their time’ argument, but it’s a pretty weaksauce one. Is it free, and are there long lines for service? If both those are true, yeah, don’t waste their time.

    I do see the objection to ‘secret shopping’ horrifically treated and poorly paid wage slaves, but the problem there is *not* actually the secret shopping, it’s supporting a horrible system. If a company treats its employees like crap, you probably shouldn’t help them in any way, especially if you know what you do is going to be used as justification to harm them more!

    As for lying…trying to figure out if someone is a journalist is basically trying to figure out if they’re going to *tell* other people stuff. They are basically asking ‘Are you going to tell people how I treat you, and, if so, do you have a platform where people might listen to you?’.

    They have *no right to know this*. No right at all. That is, in reality, such an asshole question it should get *anyone* annoyed. If I walked in somewhere and they wanted to know if *I* was a journalist, I would immediately assume they had something to hide, just like if they asked if I was a cop I’d assume they were doing something illegal.

    In fact, for the good of society, places probably *shouldn’t* know if people have platforms to tell others things, because that is exactly how and why marginalized people get treated like crap.

    Scientology can crouch that question in a sort of general survey, and pretend it’s just some sort of psych thing…and I think it’s perfectly ethical to respond with a ‘close enough’ answer, just like people do all the time with personal questions.

    Whether or not people are comfortable with flat out lying in response to a question *they should not have been asked*, or if have to couch their response in half truths, that’s up to them.

    The stuff with O’Keefe is a bit farther than any of that, going straight into lying…and I’m okay with that as part of an investigation into wrongdoing, instead of just some sort of ‘review’ of how the food is or what the religion seems like. An actual investigation with lying is, however, a more dangerous ethical line to walk. (I’m not okay with *lying* about the results of that investigation, though.)Report