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Reporters are not police detectives

Posted by Mark Leccese  June 28, 2010 09:46 AM

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American journalism boasts a widely accepted ethical code for reporters going undercover to gather information: "Don’t do it. … Except when you can’t get information important to the public any other way."

This strikes me as similar to having a Sixth Commandment that reads: "Thou shalt not kill. Except for double parkers who block traffic."

A reporter for the Minnesota-based GLBT magazine Lavender, in a June 18 cover story, outed a Minneapolis Lutheran pastor named Tom Brock who had previously spoken out against homosexuality. Reporter John Townsend “confirmed” the pastor’s homosexuality by attending, without identifying himself as a reporter, a support group for gay men “struggling with chastity” at a suburban Catholic Church at which Brock confessed to having gay sex while on a visit to Solvakia.

Here we have a single story that violates two ethical principles: gathering information for a story without indentifying yourself as a reporter, and outing a closeted homosexual.

I understand not everyone agrees with me. The website QUEERTY celebrated the story, reminding its readers that the pastor blamed a 2009 tornado on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s approval of a statement saying there is no consensus on whether the Bible condemns homosexuality. QUEERTY adds the pastor “has spent countless sermons and YouTube videos railing against you queers.”

The headline on QUEERTY’s blog post: “Lutheran Pastor Tom Brock Blamed ELCA's Tornado on Homosexuality. Which, Uh, He Suffers From.”

An opposing view comes from the blog RE:ACT, the “the official blog of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association,” which finds Lavender’s ethics “suspect” and raises a point that goes to the heart of the ethics of undercover journalism:

What’s not clear from the story is whether the reporter attended the meetings in a good-faith, or whether he attended in order to disclose information about Brock. Ultimately, it may not matter, but it does raise a question of intent.

Did Townsend attend the support group session because, he, too, was “struggling with chastity,” and when he discovered Brock at the same meeting decide to write a story? Or did Townsend get a tip that Brock would be at the meeting and attend, without indentifying himself, to catch Brock and write a story?

In response to a questions from, Lavender magazine’s publisher says Townsend was sent to the support group meeting “undercover.” That answers RE:ACT’s question about the reporter’s intent. The reporter went to the meeting “undercover” with the hope of gathering enough information to out Brock. That’s wrong.

Reporters are not police detectives. They have no business going “undercover.”

I asked my colleague Jeffrey Seglin, a journalist who has written books on business ethics and writes a ethics column called “The Right Thing” for the New York Times Syndicate, what he thought of the reporter’s behavior. Here’s what he said:

If the reporter posed on someone he is not to get a story, he builds the story based on misrepresentation. He needs to ask himself whether approaching the story by misrepresenting who he is the only way to get the story. If there was a more honest way to get it, he should have gone that route.

He also needs to ask himself if outing a gay pastor because he has made anti-gay comments in the past and presumably appears to be a hypocrite to the reporter is a legitimate stance. Has the reporter never assumed that the pastor may be both a gay man and hold anti-gay sentiments? It seems that in exploring the ethics of this story, the reporter placed an emphasis on outing the pastor without looking at what his (the reporter’s) motivations were for getting the story and whether there were alternatives that he could have used that weren’t deceptive.

To which I would add: If there were no more honest way to get the story, then the reporter should have set aside the story. Misrepresenting yourself to get a story is always unethical, no matter the story. There should be no exceptions.

A February 2010 article by Greg Marx on the website of the Columbia Journalism Review makes a convincing argument.

As other observers have noted, while the use of deception in reporting can yield sensational results, it also lends the subject a weapon to wield against the journalist. The ready-made complaint: If the reporter has forfeited the high ground of transparency and honesty, how can his conclusions be trusted by the public?

The GBLT community remains divided about the ethics of outing public figures, even those who speak out against homosexuality, as you can see from the comments below the RE:ACT blog post. As a journalist, I find outing not only unethical but a reprehensible abuse of the power of journalism. Sexual identification is a private matter if a person wants to keep it private, no matter how public a life that person leads.

When journalism ethics slide like this, we end up with James O’Keefe.

Follow Mark Leccese on Twitter at @mleccese.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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