Ethics Quiz: Find The Tell-Tale Mistake!

Unfortunately, James O'Keefe is no Nellie Bly

Kansas City Star reporter Mary Sanchez has posted an excellent column entitled “James O’Keefe and the Ethical Bankruptcy of ‘Gotcha’ Journalism.” Outside of an unfortunate final “Let’s see some genuine evidence that NPR’s coverage is biased” conclusion (you mean, other than its choice of stories, its lack of ideological balance, Nina Totenberg, its treatment of Juan Williams, and its institutionalized positions on issues like Palestine, gun control, abortion,  and illegal immigration?), she makes a strong case. But her piece is marred by a tell-tale gaffe that makes me doubt her own ethical orientation.

Your challenge in today’s Ethics Quiz: Find it! It occurs in this section:

“These gotcha recordings are the stock-in-trade of ideological operatives. The point is not to uncover actual corruption but to move public opinion on an issue by creating bad “optics” – which puts the opposition on the defensive. Gotcha artists don’t help the public to think, only to feel.

“Ironically, covert means have helped journalists uncover actual abuses, to the greater good of society. The work of 19th-century muckraker Nellie Bly, who pretended to be an institutionalized mental patient to expose the dreadful conditions in the asylums of her day, is a salutary example.

“But don’t confuse present-day credible journalists who adhere to higher standards – actually checking sources and facts and letting people know that a reporter is present – with those who orchestrate situations to generate YouTube views.

“Usually, there are more credible ways to get the story. And if that route doesn’t exist, the story might not be worth telling. In more than two decades as a reporter, I’ve been asked countless times by people pitching a cause, “Why don’t you just go undercover and expose them?” My answer is easy: “Because I’d be fired.” Ethical reporters aren’t allowed to misrepresent themselves, essentially trespassing into someone’s home or business to land a story. By any means necessary is a slogan for activists. It’s not a way to conduct solid journalism.”

Did you find the mistake?

Here’s the Answer: When asked why she doesn’t use surreptitious means, Sanchez answers, “Because I’d be fired!” That’s a non-ethical reason, not an ethical one. It implies that she would use undercover devices and misrepresentations if her paper didn’t forbid it. This speaks well for the ethical culture at the Star, and demonstrates how critical the role played by strong ethical management is to producing credible journalism. It raises the question, however, whether Sanchez would resort to “gotcha!” methodology to a juicy story if she knew she wouldn’t be fired.

The proper reply, Mary, was “Because it’s wrong.”

5 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Find The Tell-Tale Mistake!

  1. Pingback: Bankruptcy Top Stories Tomorrow » Blog Archive » Ethics Quiz: Find The Tell-Tale Mistake! | Ethics Alarms

  2. Jack,
    There’s more than two political positions in the world. If something isn’t “right” that doesn’t de facto make it “left.” NPR may be liberal, sure .. but it’s WAY better than most of what’s out there. Moreover, if you’re going to argue for the removal of NPR it should be done completely on the “there’s no reason for government to fund TV and radio programming” without the constant need to mention just how liberal they supposedly are. Even if it’s true, it’s not relevant .. if Fox News were receiving public funds the same arguments would work and conservative talking heads could stop getting so excited over vanquishing an evil liberal foe.

    Also, “because I’d be fired” is just an expression meaning “even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.” Your critique seems especially silly given that the quote condemns the use of misrepresentation and tricks, even mentioning that today’s reporters are beholden to a “higher standard” than those of past generations.

    You’re chasing another windmill.


  3. 1. Check the post. I never said that NPR (or PBS) should be de-funded because it’s biased. I object to it claiming NOT to be biased, when it obviously is, and I think when a charter claims to hold an organization to representing “all sides” fairly, it should do so (it does not), but that’s another issue. The GOP is foolish and wrong to base its defunding on O’Keefe’s sting or any other NPR content. It’s a waste of federal funds. That’s enough.

    2. No, I’m sorry, you are 100% wrong, and misguided too. Her statement does not tell me whether she would cheat if she wouldn’t be fired, and her remark is telling. This is the compliance mindset, and I confront it every day, when a lawyer says he wouldn’t do something unethical because “it violates a rule’ and it would get him disbarred. And when I ask—“And if there was no rule?”— a substantial number of lawyers, even when dealing with something like destr0ying evidence, will say, “Well, that’s different.” No, it’s not. It’s wrong, rule or not.

    That’s not a windmill, that’s my occupation.

  4. Jack,
    Put it another way .. if people only follow rules because they’re rules, then so what? I think laws against jay-walking are often idiotic as it can sometimes be easier for a mindful pedestrian to cross at places other than designated intersections, but I avoid doing it for fear of a ticket (which I’ve actually gotten before). Neither the author of the quote nor the lawyers you mentioned were actually engaged in the illicit behavior .. they merely said they would if circumstances were different.

    Also, it’s worth noting that what people say, and what they’d actually DO when confronted with the situation are often very different. Any number of people lauded the JetBlue guy (who’s name I’ve already forgotten and don’t care enough to look up) by any number of people who declared “that’s what I would have done!” yet how many of them really would, given the chance? I’d venture to say few if any.


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