THE ETHICS OF DECEIVING SOURCES


Is it ethical for a journalist to deceive a source? A group explored this question by analyzing Jan Wong's Maid for a Month series in the Globe and Mail. In 2006, Wong spent a month working undercover as a maid. She moved out of her house—with her two sons—and into an apartment as she explored life on minimum wage. Wong didn't reveal her identity to her co-workers or employer and used fictitious names and places when the series was published. A family that owned one of the houses that Wong cleaned sued the paper for invasion of privacy—and the sides settled before going to court.

A fictitious debate about the ethics behind undercover reporting followed. Maddie White said undercover reporting is unethical. "Lying to a source is a self-interested act," White said. "We lie with an objective in mind and that objective usually has direct, positive benefits to us, the liars."

Emily Panetta argued that undercover reporting is ethical. "Yes, Jan Wong was deceptive. But If you look at the bigger picture, you see that Wong lied in order to get information she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to access in order to serve the greater public good," said Panetta, who argued that the insider details gave the piece more impact.

White said that lying undermines the point of journalism: discovering the truth. Panetta said that lying is another means to discover truth. And as Jan Wong pointed out in her conversation with the group, “It’s never black and white – real life is grey."

After much deliberation, Wong made a conscious choice to violate the privacy of a few to serve the interest of many, Panetta said.

"It is up to us as journalists, to make sense of these grey areas," Panetta said.

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