LYING: MORAL CHOICE IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE By: Sissela Bok


We’ll start with the big picture of lying (journalist as human being) and move into the specifics, as related to journalism (and the reporter as professional). In this book, when ethicist Bok is talking about lying, she is referring to statements that are made with the intention to mislead. She mentions how any number of words or actions can mislead people, but how only a fraction of them are intended to do so.

A lie can do a number of things: For instance, it can misinform and eliminate or obscure alternatives. In the way that knowledge gives power, lies affect the distribution of power-meaning the deceived person has less power than the liar, because they do not possess the necessary knowledge to make particular decisions. Lies can also foster the belief that there are more alternatives available than there really are or it can lead to an (unnecessary) loss of confidence in the best alternative.

Also, the estimates of costs and benefits of an action can be skewed through a successful lie or set of lies. An example of this is mentioned in Kovach’s and Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism, where they discuss how Defense Secretary Robert McNamara went to Vietnam and came back to the United States, where spoke at a press conference saying that Viet Cong casualties were increasing and South Vietnamese forces were taking a greater role in the war. As it turns out, government documents were published years later, which showed that the opposite was true. Now in this case the reporters did not purposely deceive the public, but they bought into the lie and didn’t get at the truth either or question McNamara, and so they inadvertently deceived the public.

Bok presents the perspective of both the liar and the deceived in this text, and even though she does present a balanced argument, she clearly is on the side of the deceived. Liars, she says, would prefer to have a “free-rider” status, which gives them the benefits of lying without the risks of being lied to(in other words, they want different rules to apply to them).

She says that a lie inhibits a person who is deceived to make a personal, informed choice. Now, a personal informed choice is not the only choice that an individual can make-they can decide to abandon choosing for themselves and allow others to make choices for them. However, as Bok states, a person should decide for themselves if they want to have others make decisions for them and not have these decisions imposed on them by lies and other forms of manipulation (i.e. a source should decide if they want to speak with a reporter or not and should not be manipulated into disclosing information that they don’t want to disclose.)

“Of course, we know that many lies are trivial. But since we, when lied to, have no way to judge which lies are the trivial ones, and since we have no confidence that liars will restrict themselves to just such trivial lies, the perspective of the deceived leads us to be wary of all deception.” The problem with lies, is that they are rarely solitary. To keep up the façade, a liar must come up with a host of lies to support the original deception. The principle of veracity or truthfulness: In Bok’s opinion, truth statements are preferable to lies in the absence of special considerations (in both journalism and the real world).

There are, and should be, exceptions: Bok gives the example of how if a captain of ship who was transporting fugitives from Nazi Germany was asked by a patrolling vessel whether there are any Jews on board, the captain would be justified in lying and saying that there weren’t any Jews on board. His duty to protecting the fugitives would conflict with and should have outweighed the duty to tell the truth. Now substitute the term “ship captain” with “reporter” What if a reporter who was on the boat covering the story was asked if there were Jews on board? Should they tell the truth?

In such circumstances, people who share Kant’s absolutist position about lying (i.e. never to lie, no matter what the circumstance is) endanger innocent people and put them at the mercy of wrongdoers. Bok (in the Foreman text) mentions that in journalism and other professions, achievements in a competitive environment are rewarded and cutting corners may be one way to such achievements and if deception is rarely punished, it will be more likely to spread.

In one of the chapters in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, Bok gives the example of how Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (the journalists who broke the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon) basically hold a whole slew of lies to get the story. For instance, they lied to people that they interviewed saying that someone else had given them information about the scandal or had already given the journalists information or had said something about them. Beyond the secrecy of the investigation, Bok says it was not clear that deception was really needed and she says that there was no efforts to search for other, more honest alternatives, or to considered whether some circumstances warranted the deception more than others.

She quotes a passage from Woodward’s and Bernstein’s book, “All the President’s Men,” where both reporters were honest about the deception they used to crack the story:
“Though it wasn’t true, Woodward told Deep Throat that he and Bernstein had a story for the following week saying that Haldeman was the fifth person in control of disbursements from the secret fund."

“You’ll have to do it on your own,” Deep Throat said […] since he had not cautioned them on Haldeman, he was effectively confirming the story. —Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, All the President’s Men (Bok, p.107)

From Foreman text:
· Says that judging whether a certain act of journalistic deception is acceptable or not
· common held belief and as close to an absolute rule in journalism that journalists should never deceive the audience
· they also shouldn’t deceive their colleagues, because that would put their job in danger and even though journalists should not deceive their sources, it seems that from the three alternatives, that is the most acceptable group to deceive.

· According to guidelines outlined in The Society of Professional Journalists’ 1996 code, journalists should “avoid undercover or other surreptious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as a part of the story.” Again the guidelines outlined in the SPJ code are helpful, but not absolute, it is difficult to judge when traditional methods of reporting will or will not yield vital information to the public and when it is necessary for journalists to deceive their sources, for example. One way that journalists can deceive their sources is through undercover reporting.

In the Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel outline three standards that should be met for undercover reporting:
  • The information is vital to the public interest.
  • There is no other way to get the story.
  • The deception is disclosed to the audience

Louis Hodges, a Knight Professor of Ethics in Journalism, Emeritus, in Washington and Lee University, adds this standard: The deception must not “place innocent people at risk.” Foreman cites the example of how a journalist posing as a firefighter would fail this standard, because they would be unable to deliver as a firefighter, in the case of an actual fire.

However, deception from undercover reporting can actually contribute to the greater good. For instance, look at the example from the Foreman text of how in 1992, ABC producers lied about their work experience and gave fake references to gain employment as meat wrappers Food Markets, where they used hidden cameras to expose unsanitary food handling and labor-law violations (p.274, Foreman)

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