Wrong to Right? That is the Question.

It is an age-old adage most of us probably heard first when we were very young. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” my mother would often say. She used it in all kinds of situations, but the message was clear even as a child. As an adult, however, and as a journalist, the message is much less clear. Are there times when two wrongs can actually make a “right?”

There is much discussion surrounding undercover journalistic investigations, both from the proponent’s side and from the critics. Some of it stems from methods journalists use to reveal the “wrongs” that are the subject of the stories, as was the case with ABC’s investigation into the Food Lion grocery chain. Two reporters obtained jobs with the chain and worked to expose health code and employment practice violations. But they obtained these jobs by lying on their employment applications and ultimately ended up in litigation.

The criticism of the operation was centered on the methods, and even though Food Lion certainly felt the brunt of having its practices exposed, that story was overshadowed by the resulting lawsuit against ABC and criticism of the reporters’ actions. In this case, the “two wrongs” theory did not quite play out the way it could have.

On the other hand, undercover journalism can be a very effective way to find the information needed when traditional methods simply will not work. Consider “Clothes on Your Back” by the Toronto Star. As part of a series stemming from the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, Star reporter Raveena Alukh went undercover into a sweatshop to expose child labor practices and poor working conditions faced by the poorest of Bangladesh’s workforce. A noble cause, probably by all accounts, but ethical journalism?

From a purely journalistic point of view, one could simply turn to the Society of Professional Journalism Code of Ethics to begin evaluating the rights and wrongs of this story. The code says journalists are to “seek the truth and report it.” Alukh certainly did this. She was “fair and courageous in gathering,” and she did not distort what she saw, at least there is no reason to believe she did. The SPJ also discourages “surreptitious” information gathering except as a last resort when “traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” There was very little reason to assume the sweatshop owners would allow the press, especially a foreign reporter, access to their facilities. After the Rana Plaza collapse, there was even less. To get to the real story about the real conditions these people work in, undercover was really the only way to go. So at first glance, this is a reporter doing her job. Further consideration, however, brings up some interesting questions. Is this the whole truth? No one is suggesting Alukh did not tell the truth in her report. But what about appeared bias? There is no opportunity in Alukh’s story for the factory owner to “defend” what he does or the conditions within the factory. The only perspective in the story is Alukh’s and that of her boss, Meem, plus a few other workers. Does that live up to the SPJ’s Code of Ethics? What about the part that requires journalists to “Diligently seek out subjects” and give them the opportunity to respond?

Bias is a very difficult concept. We all hope to be impartial and objective, and we set out to cover all sides of a story in just this vein. But what of Alukh’s story? Is there a bias? The fact that the other side does not have the ability, at least from what we see, to refute anything said, lends itself to think of a perceived bias. But does the very nature of the story portray a bias as well? If you feel undercover is necessary, does that not beg the question that something is wrong, and that someone (in this case the factory owner) is responsible. Is the writer not, by deciding on an undercover operation, making an assumption of the wrongdoing or the one she is trying to deceive?

And what of that deception? Is it yet another wrong to be reconciled to try to find a right? In an evaluation of this, I turn to Sisela Bok’s determination of deception. Her justification model for deception offers up a few considerations regarding the “deceit” of undercover journalism. Bok, as referenced in our text on page 219, defines a lie as “any intentionally deceptive message…” She goes on to describe them as issues that evolve “through disguise.”  Does an undercover journalistic investigation fall into the lie category based on Bok’s definition?

From a utilitarian standpoint, there are plenty of defenses for Alukh’s story. The very small harm of her deception to the shop owners certainly contributes to the larger good of exposing the problem of child labor and horrendous conditions these children and others work in. The question at the end of that consideration is, how do you know what good it actually effected? One can hope that there will eventually be an end to these dismal conditions, but these are not immediate.

Bok proposes a justification model for those considering a lie. When applied to this situation, it seems to trend toward justification of this particular deception.  First, she maintains that we must consider alternative actions that could accomplish the same end. In this case, and especially given the Rana Plaza tragedy, it is acceptable to assume that there would not be other avenues available to journalists trying to discuss the deplorable conditions. We do not know this unequivocally, because it is not mentioned, but even if one assumes those other avenues were pursued, one can make the same assumption that these things were not available.

Bok’s second consideration is to consider the moral reasons to excuse the lie, and then to consider the counter arguments to this. It is hardly a stretch to espouse the moral reasons for the deception involved in going undercover into the sweatshops. Again, these are deplorable conditions, in which a nine-year-old girl works and will possibly never escape from, which give other people the ability to buy cheap garments and which pay her a despicable monthly wage. However, the counter-arguments are worth exploring, and Bok, in fact, encourages them. So at this point, one must consider the problems with the deceit. Let us consider the point of the story, Meem. She doesn’t know she is the subject of this story. She doesn’t know her likeness and words will be used. Alukh actually says she did not interview Meem, and that the story is simply her recount of what she saw. Did Meem know she would be quoted, portrayed in print, or in images? What of the other people in the story? Did they know they would be quoted? In a typical story, sources are able to go on the record, and the reporter is required to confirm the accuracy of what they say. Was that opportunity presented here?

The other consideration goes back to the utilitarian model. It is certainly acceptable for utilitarians to do a little harm for a greater good. We have already considered that we cannot tell exactly what the good is for this story, because we don’t know what the outcome from the fallout may be. Then we consider the harm. What about Meem? Does she miss Alukh? Did she think she was a friend who disappeared? Did she have to pick up the slack when her coworker left? Does she know about the story and has she seen her words in print? Does she feel betrayed by her hopes and dreams being splayed across the Internet? Going even further, has the factory owner seen the story and does he hold Meem responsible? If one applies Bok’s Principle of Veracity, what is the negative weight attached to this particular deception?

Finally, Bok’s model looks at what a public of reasonable people would say about such lies. In this situation, public perception could very well be outrage over the conditions, and gratefulness for the reporter who went in to reveal such things. However, the follow up to that could end up as apathy, because it is so far apart from where they live and what they do on a daily basis. So is this truly the final determination of justifying a lie?

Outside of Bok’s model, the ultimate consideration for a journalist is the story. We all want a story that reveals, and one that causes people to think. But is it possible to push too far? Greg Marx considers this in his article The Ethics of Undercover Journalism for Columbia Journalism Review. Marx postulates that an “over-reliance on sting operations and subterfuge can weaken the public’s trust in the media and compromise journalist’s claim to be truth tellers.” Journalists are supposed to be objective and impartial. A journalist’s job is to present the information to the public and allow them to draw their own conclusions. Does an undercover story allow this? By the nature of undercover necessity, secrecy is necessary. This implies that someone does not know the reporter is there. By the nature of the story, some of the subjects do not have the opportunity to defend their position. Is this the truth? Is this the whole story?

Undercover journalism may remain as an effective weapon to uncover the “wrongs” in the world. What remains to be determined is how many of these will simply be right.


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