Lying in the Name of Truth:When Is It Justified for Journalists?

By Bob Steele
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values

It’s one of the age-old debates in journalism circles. Can a journalist tell a lie to reveal the bad behavior of others? Or, put another way, when might a journalist obscure the truth of his identity in pursuit of the truth on a story?

It’s more than an academic exercise when a journalist chooses to use the deception tool.

You’ll find a very personal take on this in a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times. The writer is Ken Silverstein, who once wrote for that paper and is now Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.

Silverstein defends his use of deception for a July story in Harper’s.  He misrepresented his identity “pretending to be the representative of a London-based energy company with business interests in Turkmenistan” in reporting on D.C. lobbyists who would eagerly sell their services for dubious reasons to questionable clients. Silverstein writes, “In exchange for fees of up to $1.5 million a year, they offered to send congressional delegations to Turkmenistan and write and plant opinion pieces in newspapers under the names of academics and think-tank experts they would recruit.”

Silverstein’s essay is intended both to defend his use of deception in reporting this story and to condemn those journalists who eschew the possibility of using some form of lying. Silverstein said he expects the targets of his investigation — the lobbyists who were willing to sell their services — to challenge his methods. But he was disappointed at the criticism of Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, “who was apparently far less concerned by the lobbyists’ ability to manipulate public and political opinion than by my use of undercover journalism.”

Silverstein’s L.A. Times essay recounts the history of the use of deception in undercover journalism and the turn away from such methods in the wake of the Food Lion v. ABC News case. Silverstein also takes a shot at the Washington press corps in general for being too timid when it comes to considering the use of deception as a viable reporting tool.

“I’m willing to debate the merits of my piece,” he writes, “but the carping from the Washington press corps is hard to stomach. This is the group that attended the White House correspondents’ dinner and clapped for a rapping Karl Rove. As a class, they honor politeness over honesty and believe that being ‘balanced’ means giving the same weight to a lie as you give to the truth.”

I don’t know enough about the extent of Silverstein’s reporting on the lobbyists story before he pulled the deception tool out of his bag. He argues it would have been “impossible” to get “the same information and insight with more conventional journalistic methods.” That’s an argument he must defend to justify his decision to misrepresent his identity.

I’ve written many times about the use of deception, including the ABC News v. Food Lion case  and the use of hidden-camera reporting in general.

I’ve also written guidelines for journalists to use when considering the use of deception or misrepresentation in their reporting process.

I’m not an absolutist on these matters of truth versus lies. I believe there are some situations — rare, exceptional cases — when deception may be justified. If you meet multiple thresholds.

Ken Silverstein’s story in Harper’s and his defense of his undercover reporting methods offer us yeasty material to renew the debate on when, if ever, deception is justified in the pursuit of the truth.

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