Is Undercover Reporting Inherently Unethical?
Over in the threads at Blinded Trials 2.0, Gabriel Conroy made a comment with which, to various degrees, I both agree and disagree. Because Gabriel’s comment brings up a question of ethics — and more importantly, a question of ethics in journalism — I thought I might toss it our to the Hive mind and see where people land on this.
Here’s the setup:
I was commissioned by a magazine to do an article on the leaders of a large religious organization. I should note that although the IRS (and thus the federal government) recognizes this organization as a religion, most outsiders refer to it as a cult. Because I knew little about the theology of said organization that did not come from these outsiders, I reached out to the church and asked if I could interview someone of their choosing who might better explain their theology, dogma, practices, etc.
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. As best as I could tell, this was not intended as a helpful suggestion so much as a snarky way of telling me to sod off. Still, I ended up taking them at their literal (if not intended) word. I found a local branch of the church, and made an appointment to be tested for potential membership. Immediately after taking the test, I spent the afternoon with a representative of the church who attempted to get me to convert, while I in turn asked him questions in hopes of better understanding the church, its members, and its appeal.
I should note here that the church is open to the public, and further that anyone and everyone is invited to take their initial membership test. Also, when I filled out the Personal Info sheet, I used my real name and I listed my profession as writer. 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. However, he never directly asked if I was writing an article on his church and I never volunteered that information; he might or might not have correctly guessed that I was. I had no intention of quoting him, or including my experiences from that day in the magazine article. I was just trying to better wrap my head around the church before I wrote about it.
Here’s the quandary:
In my post on BT2, I noted that at one point, when I thought I had been found out, I went over in my head what I had done to see if I had accidentally made an ethical lapse somewhere. Gabriel responded to this by saying that he
personally [thinks] it’s impossible to do what Tod did and not cross some ethical line. That doesn’t (per my preface above) mean it’s on balance wrong to do what he did, just that entering an arena meant for (to use the wrong words) the “faithful” or recruitment of people to the “faith” cannot help but be intrusive to some degree against those people. Tod enters with the intention of doing a study and not with the intention of converting. And the study is almost predisposed to be something of an expose…
None of that means I think Tod was completely wrong to do it. Sometimes–maybe almost always–one has to cross an ethical line to do something good. And while what I’m saying probably sounds like a criticism–and may be in some ways a criticism–I really do mean this as an observation.
I confess, until I had read Gabriel’s comment it had not occurred to me that I might have crossed any ethical lines. To be honest, I’m still not sure that I have. But it was an interesting enough question that I thought I would throw it out there to everyone, along with a few follow-ups.
And so, dear readers, I ask you:
Is undercover reporting inherently unethical, even if it is perhaps necessary?
Related: Is undercover law enforcement also unethical? If you have different answers for journalists and law enforcement officers, why?
Finally, a follow up question for those who say that undercover reporting is inherently unethical: If undercover journalism is unethical, is reporting answers that differ from the ones given to you by a person or an organization you are reporting on unethical? 1 If not, why is undercover reporting unethical?
Thanks in advance for your thoughts.