January 06, 2008

The end of the story justifies the means?

“Britney Out Of Hospital” one of the Mirror’s headlines reads today. The pictures enclosed show singer Britney Spears tied down to a stretcher as paramedics take her in an ambulance to Sinai Hospital in L.A after a mental breakdown on Friday.
For those not satisfied with pictures of a tied down Britney, BBC News offers a video of the incident, showing how paramedics take the confused singer away and how a crowd of paparazzi storms the ambulance she’s in.

Seeing those pictures made me wonder what journalists are willing to do for an exclusive or rather how they gather their material and information. Despite the fact that those paparazzi clearly have no respect for Britney’s privacy (which is probably part of the job description), they don’t mind to hinder paramedics from doing their job or filming into a closed ambulance.

When hunting for an exclusive or revealing political racketeering, are journalists allowed to do anything? Is going undercover, using hidden cameras or intercepting telephone calls to investigate a story ethical? Does the end of the story justify the means?

According to the Press Complaints Commission the answer to this question is yes ... and no!
Paragraph ten of the Commission’s code of practice, titled clandestine device and subterfuge, states that

“The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices. […] Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”

So, although using clandestine devices or engaging in subterfuge is generally considered unethical, the end of the story does justify unethical methods of news gathering.

Being in line with the PCC, the BBC states in its’ guidelines that

Secret recording must be justified by a clear public interest. It is a valuable tool for the BBC because it enables the capture of evidence or behaviour that our audiences would otherwise not see or hear. [...] Investigations are an important way of uncovering matters of significant public interest. In the course of a BBC investigation the use of secret recording must be kept under constant review.“

The magic key in those statements and justification for unethical methods of news gathering, seems to be “” which basically means that almost anything is allowed as long as it is important for the public to know about the story.

Using the argument of “the public interest”, the BBC in 2003 send one of its’ reporters undercover to investigate claims of institutional racism in the police force. The reporter had been trained by Greater Manchester Police and started working there as a probationary constable. When his subterfuge leaked out, the reporter was taken to jail but was later released on bail.
Condemning this method of journalistic research, a spokesperson of Greater Manchester Police said that by condoning this act of unethical journalism, the media organisation [BBC] might well have breached people's human rights.

A spokeswoman for the BBC on the other justified their methods by saying that the BBC had spent several months investigating allegations of institutional racism within the Greater Manchester Police - they believed this to be a matter of significant public interest.

But does the public interest really justify using unethical methods to investigate a story? To show that there’s no definite answer to this question – at least as far as I am concerned – I picked two examples – one with a happy ending and one that went down in German history as a journalistic scandal:

In early 2007, journalist Fabrizio Gatti, who writes for the Italian newspaper L’Espresso, revealed his shocking findings about the hygienic deficits at Italy’s biggest hospital Umberto l hospital in Rome.
Gatti pretended for a month to work at the hospital as a cleaner. He used hidden cameras, photographed dirty corridors and staff smoking at the children’s intensive care unit and hazardous refuse that had been abandoned inside the hospital.
Immediately after his shocking report, the police’s health and hygiene unit Nas arrived at the hospital to proof the accusations and Health Minister Livia Turo announced an investigation of hygiene standards at all Italian hospitals.

Although I believe that deluding others about one’s true identity and intentions is unethical, I think that Fabrizio Gatti’s going undercover was justified. First of all his report brought leading politicians to take care about prevailing deficits at Italian hospitals – something many Italians will benefit from (this is what I understand as really being in “the public interest”).
And secondly, Gatti did not harm anybody (I can’t image there has been much interaction with patients as he was a cleaner) or put someone at danger. This is where Gatti’s report differs from the undercover investigations made by the BBC.
Although the subject of investigation, institutional racism within the Greater Manchester Police, is definitely of public interest, pretending to work for the police is extremely unethical, so I believe. The police is an institution that is supposed to help and protect people and that is based on trust – trust that people will find help and protection when they need it. By sending a reporter to Manchester Police to pretend to be someone he is not, the BBC accepted that people were deluded and their trust was being undermined. Instead of making the public benefit from their investigation, the BBC betrayed their trust.

Another case that made bad headlines in this matter is the one of journalist Sebastian Knauer, who used to write for the German magazine Stern, and his colleague Hanns-Jörg Anders, a photographer:
On October 11th, 1987, both journalists broke into the hotel room of Uwe Barschel, Prime Minister of a German federal state. The journalists had been investigating a political affaire involving Barschel and broke into his hotel room for more – exclusive – information.
After they had entered the room, they found the minister in the bathroom. He was dead and lying head under water in a bathtub.
Instead of calling the police or taking the man out of the tub, the journalists took pictures of the scene and even put Barschel’s head over water to get clearer pictures. They went through Barschel’s hotel room and took pictures of private documents the minister had in his brief case.

The magazine Stern published the exclusive pictures, despite the pleas of Barschel’s widow.

This is probably the worst example of unethical journalism I can think of. Not only did the journalists disrespect the minister’s privacy, they also violated the law by breaking into his hotel room. Furthermore, they made the exclusive story their priority instead of checking if the minister was still alive or calling help.
And the worst of all, I think, they published the pictures although they disregarded the minister’s right to dignity, which is one of the basic and most important rights of the German constitution.
As a consequence of his unethical and inconsiderate behaviour, Sebastian Knauer today still feels haunted by the events of that night and the pictures of Uwe Barschel in his head. In the view interviews the journalists gave after the incident, he said that his colleagues eye him with suspicion and lost their trust in him since the incident.
Unethical journalism, no matter how big the headline, clearly does not pay off every time.

So, as it is with almost anything when it comes to ethical conduct, it is not always easy to say what rights and wrong - this is also true for investigative journalism, undercover reports, using clandestine devices and such.
And although “the public interest” seems to be the magic key in this matter, I think it should not be overstrained. I do not condemn those methods of news gathering in general, but journalists should more often balance if their investigations are really in the public’s interest or rather in the interest of circulation numbers and their own careers.

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