Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Ethics of Undercover Journalism (Part 1): Introduction

This is the problem with the country. We don’t understand anymore that truth has no agenda. It doesn’t have an agenda. It’s just the truth.” ~ Glenn Beck [1]

In my view, the method‘s employed by O’Keefe are, so far as I know, legitimate. In effect, he conceals in order to reveal.” ~ Roger Kimball [2]

I. Introduction: Media Ethics, Undercover Journalism, and the Potter Box

Imagine yourself in the following hypothetical scenario: You are a liberal journalist working for the Daily Kos. One evening in Manhattan, you stealthily follow two Fox News producers, Megan Brown and Jay Wallace, into a fancy midtown bar. On the large television screen mounted on the wall across the bar, Nancy Pelosi is seen delivering a speech. You settle in at the bar counter near the two Fox producers as they watch. After a few drinks, you hear Wallace say, “Oh Christ, that Pelosi just makes me want to vomit!” Brown nods her head in agreement. The two of them then go on to make several comments that certainly make them seem like much less than unbiased producers of the news.

But you did not just hear and see this personally. Their reactions to Nancy Pelosi, as well as much of their subsequent conversation, have been captured on your cell phone’s video camera. Excited, you make your way outside the bar, where you begin writing a rough draft of the headline for the story you want to write tonight: “What Fox News Producers Really Think About the News.”

But on your drive home, you begin to consider your actions more deeply. Is what you are doing ethical? Would you go through with releasing your video and written story to the public? Why or why not?


Of all the pressing ethical questions facing the field of journalism, the most controversial and discussed is arguably that of undercover journalism, sometimes referred to as immersion journalism (although it may be necessary to make a distinction). While a number of interesting questions come into play in this particular debate, the central driving one is whether it is ever ethically permissible to engage in an act of deception in order to arrive at the truth in the most optimal manner possible.

Throughout the long history of journalism, there have been a great many cases in which individual people, as well as members of news organizations as a collective group, have gone undercover in order to pursue many different kinds of stories and a wide array of political, social and even religious issues. One of the most interesting and unusual cases of undercover journalism in the latter category is that of Gina Welch, a Yale-trained atheist journalist who infiltrated the church and school (Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University, respectively) of the late famous evangelist Jerry Falwell for one year, pretending to be a devout fundamentalist and evangelical Christian and befriending the churchgoers:

I wanted to know what my evangelical neighbors were like as people, unfiltered and off the record, not as the subjects of interviews conducted by the “liberal media.” I wanted to try to take them on their own terms . . . Going undercover seemed like the only way to access the truth about the other side. Evangelicals were so suspicious of the “liberal mainstream media,” so schooled in image management, branding, and talking points that I felt I needed to go unnoticed if I was going to get an authentic understanding. They needed to know the microphone was off. I’d do whatever it took to get the story [3].
During a question-and-answer session hosted by FORA TV in March 2010, Welch addressed what she felt were the ethical problems she struggled with before her investigation was complete: “I felt toxic . . . I felt like I physically couldn’t lie anymore. I was so upset about not only what I was doing but the fact that, you know, the revelation that it was morally problematic happened so late in the process [4].” Despite these ethical qualms, Welch not only completed her book, entitled In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church, but argued in the the same FORA lecture that her project satisfied two key ethical criteria: “There’s a history of undercover journalism, and I think the two questions that every undercover project raises is, are (1) do the merits of the resulting work justify the means by which the work was obtained, (2) could the work have been obtained any other way? And I think that my work, my book, satisfies both of those questions [5].”

(Image by Nathan Dickey)

Was the undercover project Gina Welch engaged in ethical or not? One can find professional journalists who would weigh in on both sides of this question, and, as is the case with almost all ethical questions, the answer does not reduce to a simple black-and-white resolution, or even a clear-cut distinction. Given the highly controversial nature of undercover journalism, it is worth exploring both sides of the argument fully before launching into a persuasive case for or against. There exist all manner of gray variations, as is to be expected when critically examining any ethical question worth asking.

A systematic process of reasoning about ethics involves several steps. Just such a process is provided in what media ethics experts call the “Potter Box,” a model of solidly-based moral decision-making that represents four sequential steps within a rectangular diagram that is conceptually easy to navigate. First formulated in the 1960s by Dr. Ralph Potter of the Harvard Divinity School [6], the Potter Box “introduces four dimensions of moral analysis to aid us in locating those places where most misunderstandings occur. Along these lines we can construct action guides [7].”

The first dimension is that of definition, the empirical evaluation of all the facts and/or issues arising in any given situation one is confronted with. This first step involves gaining an understanding of exactly what took place. The next step is to identify the specific values in operation that drive or aggravate the situation one has thus far only defined. There is not a single media/news story one can point to that does not involve a set of values (which run the gamut from aesthetic, professional, logical, moral and sociocultural) at work on the part of the characters involved.

For example, when Arthur Ashe - the African-American star tennis player who overcame racial barriers current at the time to win both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon championships - contracted HIV in 1988 arising from blood transfusions he had received while undergoing heart surgery five years earlier, he was understandably reluctant to go public with news of his disease. He had little choice in the matter, however, and in April 1992, USA Today reporter Doug Smith contacted Ashe regarding the tip he had picked up of his AIDS contraction, a tip Ashe did not want to confirm yet. “Believing that he had no choice but to confront the issue directly, he met again with a USA Today reporter and confirmed he had AIDS. The story was quickly provided to the paper’s international edition and circulated to other news organizations [8].” How should USA Today have treated the decision of whether or not to publish the story? Everybody has a stake in this situation, the two foremost being the reporter’s career and Ashe’s best interests. Whose stake was highest? Whose agendas are in operation, and what are the competing values?

The third step in the Potter Box’s moral reasoning process is to determine what moral principle one is going to choose to apply to the situation, that is, what ethical philosophies or modes of reasoning may be applicable to the facts of the case. Depending both on the case in question and on the values one advocates, some may choose to apply John Stuart Mill’s Principle of Utility, which is to seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number [9]. This principle is very similar to what might be called the “Spock Principle.” Most film enthusiasts will recall one of the greatest classic scenes in cinematic history when, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock confines himself inside the engine room of the Enterprise starship to restore the damaged warp drive that will allow the ship and its crew to escape the reacting Genesis Device before it violently alters all matter in the nebula in which they are stranded. In the process of repairing the warp drive, Spock exposes himself to lethal levels of radiation and begins to die even as he succeeds in his efforts. When a distressed Kirk arrives and finds his comrade dying, Spock tells him not to mourn. “The good of the many,” Spock says, “. . . outweighs the good of the few . . . Or the one [10].” A hypothetical instance in which the Principle of Utility/Spock Principle might be of great, (indeed, urgent) relevance is one in which exposing the story of Arthur Ashe against his wishes saves many people from potentially unhealthy uses of the blood supply, at the cost of devastating the reputation of a single individual.

Other ethical principles and theories journalists may draw from in determining what action to take in a situation include John Rawls’ now-famous “Veil of Ignorance” thought experiment, which tackles the question of whose perspective should be favored in the designing of an ideal society. The thought experiment describes the hypothetical designer of the ideal society being in a state of complete ignorance as to what the society or the individuals comprising it are to be like. In fact, the designer does not even know who he is going to end up becoming. For all he knows, he could be a slave if this society features slaves as part of its infrastructure. He could be a peasant if there are peasants in this society. He could be a woman or an ethnic minority. With this veil of ignorance enshrouding the foresight of the designer, how should he go about designing a society that he would want to live and thrive in, no matter who he might end up being when he awakens in his world [11]? Or one could adopt Aristotle’s “Golden Mean,” which states that optimal moral virtue represents a middle state between excess and deficiency, to be determined by practical wisdom, or what Thomas Paine might call “common sense [12].” Then again, one may find appropriate the Judeo-Christian principle which views human beings as ends in themselves and not merely as means [13].

The fourth and final step in the Potter Box process is to decide what course of action one is going to take, given the considerations made in the previous three phases. A key part of this decisionmaking involves the journalist developing an active understanding (as opposed to a passive acknowledgment) of where his or her loyalties or allegiance lies, and why.

Nathan Dickey: Expert creepster, or legit undercover reporter?


1. Glenn Beck TV, "The Truth Has No Agenda" (video, 4:32) February 18, 2011, (accessed 22 March 2012).

2. As quoted in Emily Esfahani Smith, “Ends vs. Means: The Ethics of Undercover Journalism,” The Blaze March 9, 2011, (accessed 4 July 2012).

3. Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010), p. 5.

4. Gina Welch,, "Land of the Believers: Evangelical America" (video, 1:07:16) March 23, 2010, (accessed 4 July 2012).

5. Ibid.

6. Ralph B. Potter, “The Structure of Certain American Christian Responses to the Nuclear Dilemma, 1958-63” (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1965).

7. Clifford G. Christians, et. al., Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning 6th ed. (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 2001), p. 3.

8. Louis Alvin Day, Ethics in Media Communications: Cases and Controversies 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group, 2003), p. 138.

9. “[T]hat standard [utilitarianism] is not the agent’s own great happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it . . . the ultimate end, with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable – whether we are considering our own good or that of other people – is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality; the test of quality and the rule for measuring it against quantity being the preference felt by those who, in their opportunities of experience, to which must be added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with the means of comparison” (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism [1861], ed. George Sher [Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1979], pp. 11-12).

10. Vonda N. McIntyre, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (New York: Pocket Books, 1982), p. 209. See also Judith Barad, Ph.D., and Ed Robertson, The Ethics of Star Trek (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), pp. 271-295.

11. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Revised Edition (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 118-130. While this approach is not entirely without its flaws, it is nevertheless an excellent starting point when thinking about how we collectively want society to work. For example, the designer working under the veil of ignorance could be a social conservative who might harbor fears that liberals in his society would want to take money away from the rich and evenly distribute it among everybody. This conservative designer might fear that a liberal society such as this would end up discouraging the more productive members of society. But under the veil of ignorance, this designer is forced to place himself in the shoes of those less fortunate than he, as he has no way of knowing if he might find himself in that lowly position. By the same token, if the designer under the veil of ignorance is a liberal, he must take into consideration that the rich (which he may or may not end up being once the veil of ignorance is lifted) want to enjoy the benefits of being rich as much as possible. But at some point both the conservative and the liberal designer under the veil of ignorance must take into account the possibility of being poor when the veil is lifted, and in that position, neither the conservative nor the liberal want to be a serf who is forever stuck in that situation with no hope of upward mobility.
This ties in well with the concept of the best solution for dividing up a metaphoric cake. The best solution is to oblige the one cutting the cake and dividing it into pieces to be the last one to select his or her piece. If I am in a position of power to cut the cake, everybody else around me receives first pickings. This strategy encourages the one in the greatest position of power to divide the cake as fairly as possible, so that he does not end up shortchanging himself (after all, as both conservatives and liberals can agree, the powerful elite also have basic rights).

12. “Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while excellence both finds and chooses that which is intermediate” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. II, ch. 6. This is W.D. Ross’s translation in Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation – Volume Two [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984], p. 1748).

13. “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39b, King James Version). Quoted in William K. Frankena, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), p. 42.

1 comment:

  1. Welch is self-serving alright... The difference between advocacy journalism and this undercover horsesh%$! (if that's really what you call her trickery) is that the latter lies, while pretending to be objective, and the former is honest about its intentions.
    I grew up in the land of the believers, and I understand it can be scary. But if my philosophical viewpoint is opposed to theirs, why hide undercover and pretend like I'm givin believers a fair shot? Funny how it was late in the process when the ethical question occurred to her!