When is investigative journalism unethical?

3 June 2019

Written by: Allanah Sciberras

Can ethics become compromised while searching for the truth in a journalism investigation?

Many journalists abide by a set code of ethics when reporting, but all too often, the ethical line can become blurry.

Public trust in the media is an integral part of journalism and we expect that journalists maintain ethical standards when conducting investigations. But can these ethics become compromised when using covert and undercover methods?

Ethics do matter

There is a clear set of ethics created by the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA) that discuss journalistic integrity.

The strict code emphasises honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others.

“Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply,” the code states.

But are investigative journalism methods missing in the code?

Although these ethics are followed by many journalists, the code doesn’t explicitly mention deception and covert methods. The code stresses that there is always a need to be conscious of integrity when reporting.

Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation Australia, believes that although the code is a strong document there is a flaw when it comes to sting operations.

“The MEAA code of ethics is a strong document to guide journalists in their ethical conduct. But it has a flaw, in that it doesn’t expressly ban conduct that changes the course of events, or entrapment or sting operations. To my mind these are unethical,” Kitchell told upstart.

In a guidance clause, the MEAA states that these codes may be overridden by a rare case of public interest.

“Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden,” the code of ethics states.

But how can ethical standards become compromised?

Although the MEAA has stayed silent about ethical standards in investigative journalism, many journalists say that entrapment and covert methods should never make a story.

The recent sting by media outlet Al Jazeera is a prime example of how the ethical line can become blurred.

The March 2019 series, How to sell a massacre exposed members of the One Nation party, in meetings with the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the US, attempting to receive funding for the overturning of domestic gun laws.

There were many questions on the methods used to expose the story. Did the sting lead to entrapment? And was this deception? Prominent journalists have argued for each side of the case.

Mark Willacy, a senior investigative journalist at the ABC, believes that the story may have hit ethical turbulence by creating a false environment.

“While I believe it is ethical to use covert means to infiltrate a secretive and powerful lobby group like the National Rifle Association, I believe the producers of the story touched – or even crossed – an ethical line by being a conduit between the NRA and One Nation. Would One Nation have gone to Washington to meet the NRA without the involvement, encouragement, or purported contacts of the undercover reporter? I doubt it,” he told upstart.

But Andrew Dodd, a former ABC journalist, told The Conversation that in some circumstances, public interest does trump concern for ethical standards.

“For me, the use of hidden cameras can clearly be defended when a publicly funded Australian political party, that knows what it’s doing is dodgy, is making connections to ‘change Australia’ by gaining the balance of power in the parliament and working hand in glove with the United States,” he said.

“It is highly likely the extent of One Nation’s behaviour could only be exposed through this sort of reportage.”

“The public has a clear right to know what One Nation is up to.”

Former Al Jazeera journalist, Peter Greste, said that serious ethical questions should be raised over the editorial practices and methods used by the outlet.

“We are supposed to be observers to the news, not participants…it’s inappropriate for journalists to become parts of the story the way they clearly did in this case,” Greste told The New York Times.

It is up to a journalist to uncover the truth, but to what lengths is this okay?

“It is the job of the journalists to serve the public interest overall. This means that where investigative journalism uses methods that may breach the code of ethics, an overriding public interest must justify it,” Misha Ketchell, editor of The Conversation, explained.

“The sting also may have breached this clause of the MEAA code of ethics as it used a dishonest method to obtain information,” Ketchell said.

Commenting on the criticism of the sting, multi-Walkley winner, Logie award winner and ABC journalist Chris Masters told upstart that it is up to the journalist to uncover the story.

“The best way is to independently gather information and then to seek to reconcile what you have found. When seeking information, across the industry there are varied views about what constitutes ethical conduct,” he told upstart.

“It is very hard to justify outright deception.”

Is there an ethical solution?

For now, the line remains quite blurry when it comes to investigative journalism and reporting, ethics-wise.

Mark Willacy told upstart that there is a need for a specific clause for investigative journalism, to ensure that no ethical lines are crossed.

“I think there is probably a need for specific clauses within the existing code to deal with investigative journalism, particularly in this era of recording and surveillance devices such as our very own smart phones,” he said.

“Trust is one of journalism’s most important assets. Without it, we have no currency with which to trade with sources, talent, or the audience. So that means we should have guidelines that deal specifically with investigative journalism.”

Currently, there are no immediate steps to create an investigative code of ethics. It remains up to individual journalists and publications to navigate the line for themselves, and to judge whether or not their methods are ethical.

Allanah Sciberras is a third-year student studying a Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism).

Photo: Diary writing by Fredrik Rubensson available HERE and used under a Creative Commons Attribution. The image has not been modified.