Transparency: The Journalist and the Subject

(The original version of this entry was written by Liem Vu)


“A reporter is only as good as their source.” It is a colloquial phrase that requires reporters to chase, woo and seduce sources into supplying information they otherwise would not disclose. However, this competitive belief system can easily lead to a slippery slope of deception and lies.

The landmark 2009 decision of Grant v. Torstar created the public interest responsible communication defence. It outlined eight factors that could override defamation charges on the basis of public interest and responsible reporting. The fifth principle, which asks whether the Plaintiff’s side of the story is sought and accurately reported, will anchor the following discussion surrounding the issue of being completely honest with sources.

Deception of sources can come in many forms from the extreme (the use of undercover tactics or hidden cameras) to the greyer area of misrepresenting motives. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel list a string of possible deceptions that include “bluffing sources, failing to level with sources about the real point of the story…[and] lying to sources about the point of stories” (97). Janet Malcolm famously considers some kind of deception almost inevitable for journalists, whom she describes as “morally indefensible” predators preying on a subject’s weaknesses without remorse (1). When transparency with a source is compromised, the reporter-source relationship can quickly become a legally and ethically messy power struggle. When a reporter uses deception, a “collision in values” arises to produce a journalistic paradox (Foreman 269).

Journalists' ethics codes such as those of the Canadian Association of Journalists and the (U.S.) Society of Professional Journalists do not explicitly prohibit lying, but do state (in the SPJ's words) that ethical journalists are expected to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. The code states that journalists should treat sources and subjects “as human beings deserving of respect” (Foreman 89), which is hard to reconcile with respect. To lie is to mislead and to mislead is to be unfair to the subject. According to Aristotle, lying is “mean and culpable” and should be avoided if truthful means are available (Bok 32).

The reporter’s primary directive is to be a truth teller. But if lying is used in the name of truth, an ethical and moral dilemma arises. The question is: can deception be justified by the end goal is getting at a larger truth?

Deception: The Harms of Misrepresented Motives

The SPJ and other ethics codes for journalists stipulate that a journalist should minimize harm. But if deception is used to squeeze information out of a source, severe harm may result. Playground politics may describe white lies as doing little or no harm, and the utilitarian view suggests that small lies might even remove the potential hurt that can result by telling the truth. However, some say it is no different than a violent assault (Bok 19). Deceit and violence can “coerce people into acting against their will” as well as distort how a situation is perceived (Bok 20).

It is one thing to mislead a person in one’s personal life, but it’s another to do so as a journalist. The relationship between a reporter and a source should, in theory, be detached and professional in its nature. But in reality, “neither reporters nor their sources are robots; they have feelings about the subject at hand” (Seib and Fitzpatrick 101). The meeting between the source and the journalist usually marks the first stage of this relationship. The journalist will then attempt to glean a large amount of information from the source in attempts to take the conversation “in directions that a source might not always want to go” (Berkowitz 104). Artful conversation and interviewing techniques can produce excellent material, but there is always the temptation to misrepresent one’s motives through false flattery.

From the start, the two parties enter into a “delicately negotiated relationship” (Berkowitz 103). Reporters put their reputation for accuracy and reliability on the line when they write a story. Likewise, a subject’s reputation hinges on the possibility that whatever they put on the public record may compromise both their professional and personal lives.

Sources are often in a more vulnerable position than reporters. Journalists reconstruct and frame stories based on their interviews and eventually decide what to include in an article (Berkowitz 103).

Those who have been victims of deception are often left emotionally damaged, as Sissela Bok describes:

“Those who learn that they have been lied to in an important matter…are resentful, disappointed, and suspicious. They feel wronged; they are wary of new overtures. And they look back on their past beliefs and actions in the new light of the discovered lies. They see that they were manipulated, that the deceit made them unable to make choices for themselves, according ot the most adequate information available, unable to act as they would have wanted to act had they known all along.” (Bok 22).

Little lies can produce big harms. But if deception is intentional as Bok says, why do journalists choose to commit this ethical faux pas? A series of examples need to be assessed in order to adequately shed light on this question.

The Mirror and the Lamp

A journalist can choose to be either a lamp or a mirror.

According to a 1953 study by M.H. Abrams, the lamp and the mirror is a metaphor used to describe the dichotomy between Romanticism and the literary-philosophic tradition (Murphy 31). The former is compared to a lamp, which “makes a contribution to the objects it perceives,” whereas the latter is the mirror that objectively reflects what is in the external world (Murphy 31).

Daily news often occupies the role of the mirror as it spits out the cold hard facts. On the other hand, more in-depth stories require journalists to be the lamp. One danger of the lamp role is the possibility of becoming too engaged with the subject in all the wrong ways. But there is another, more epistemological, problem with the lamp role. Mirrors merely reflect, but lamps are often positioned with a purpose. This purpose can be interpreted as the reporter’s hypothesis - the origin of every story. Somewhere down the line, a reporter may make the decision whether or not to shed light on a fact.

Similarly, reporters may decide to mislead a source in order to prove a hypothesis. It could be as simple as a false statement that suggests loyalty. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm chronicles the professional and ethical faults of Joe McGinniss, an author who allegedly deceived his subject for his 1983 novel Fatal Visions. Malcolm paints McGinniss as an opportunistic villain who infiltrates the life of Jeffrey MacDonald, a captain accused and later convicted of slaughtering his pregnant wife and two daughters. McGinniss embeds himself in MacDonald’s defence team and brokers an exclusive contract that will give him unbridled access to MacDonald’s life.
This initial deal then resulted in an ethically questionable friendship.

“They clothed their complicated business together in the mantle of friendship – in this case, friendship of a particularly American cast, whose emblems of intimacy are watching sports on television, drinking beer, running, and classifying women according to looks,” writes Malcolm (22).

Malcolm also reprints a series of letters written by McGinniss following MacDonald’s conviction. In a letter written on September 11, 1979, McGinniss writes:

“There could not be a worse nightmare than the one you are living through now – but it is only a phase. Total strangers can recognize within five minutes that you did not receive a fair trial…It’s all so fucking awful I can’t believe it yet – the sight of the jury coming in – of the jury polling – of you standing – saying those few words – being led out – and then seeing you in a fucking prison. It’s a hell of a thing – spend the summer making a new friend and then bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey – not for long” (Malcolm 33-35).

According to Malcolm, McGinniss was never truly upset by MacDonald’s incarceration nor was he really his friend. The letters sent to MacDonald suggested that McGinniss’ book would exonerate the former captain of the murders. Instead, it was merely used as a tool to gain further access into MacDonald’s life. Fatal Vision was eventually published in 1983 and to the surprise of MacDonald, it painted him as a sociopath. In 1984, MacDonald filed a lawsuit against the writer for breach of contract and persuaded five of the six jurors that “a man who was serving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and two small children was deserving of more sympathy than the writer who had deceived him” (Malcolm 6).

McGinniss may or may not have initially believed in the hypothesis of MacDonad's innocence, but he certainly ended up lying to his source by faking a friendship. He also deceived his audience by failing to disclose his relationship with the source.

McGinniss and writers who mislead their subjects are often too fixated with having “dramatic unity, bringing together plot, character, scene, method, and purpose” (Carey 306). These goals tend to result in the use of deceit in order to fulfill, in desperation, their various hypotheses. Writers might find thmselves in a compromising situation where truth is traded in for perfect “scenes, plot, character development, voice tone, and point of view” (Shapiro 293). By not giving full disclosure to their sources, they betrayed not only their subjects but also their readers.

The Case for Transparency

Some theorists believe that “the truth-seeking reporter…if he is operating correctly, has no predetermined ends to seek, no hypotheses to prove” (Stocking and LeMarca 295). In reality, writers will naturally bring prejudices and viewpoints to the story.

In a study conducted by Seow Ting Lee, the author interviewed 20 journalists to gauge their opinions on the levels of deception and whether they are appropriate.
Some justified deception “for handling difficult sources, especially in dealing with ‘crooks’ and ‘rats’” (Lee 12). But this was not always the case. According to one reporter, the person’s character should not alter a reporter’s conduct. “It doesn’t matter whether the person or company that you’re writing about is unethical or criminal. We don’t want to be the same as they are,” he said (Lee 12).

Writer Paul McLaughlin offered a similar perspective in regards to one’s relationship with a source.

“You can be friendly and professional at the same time. I think to be friendly is a normal thing to be. You don’t have to pretend to get the details. You ask the right questions and you try to get them to open up and build a rapport with you.”

He later noted that he has always been able to produce effective pieces of work by being transparent with the source.

“I like how I’ve handled myself over the years because I feel like I’ve been myself with people. I’m not pretending to be something that I haven’t been. If I’m with a bigot, I don’t pretend that I’m a bigot too. If I’m with a person who has one view on abortion, I don’t pretend to have theirs. I don’t do that. I tell them what mine is and say I’m interested in finding out why they have theirs. It’s not my goal to be a little sneak. That’s not one of things I want on my list of characteristics.”

Similar sentiments have been echoed by journalists like Boston Globe political correspondent Jill Zuckerman, who has gone on record saying that it is “always better to level with sources” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 97).

The "Ethical Lie"

While McLaughlin and Zuckerman, take a deontological approach to truth-telling, others take a more teleological position that “deception is acceptable if it will lead to a greater good” (Foreman 269).

This approach manifests itself in investigative pieces that require reporters to misrepresent themselves to sources or situation. Compared with false flattery, investigative or undercover journalism is on the opposite end of the spectrum of deceptive journalism. Reporters will often take on a disguise and interact with environments and people unaware of the ruse (Seib and Fitzpatrick 89). Former Globe and Mail journalist Jan Wong used this tactic when she went undercover as a maid and Globe and Mail Editor-In-Chief John Stackhouse did the same when he embedded himself in the homeless population.

Three conditions must be met in order to justify this sort of deceit in journalism, according to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (98):
(1) The information must be vital to the public interest.
(2) There is no other alternative to obtain the story.
(3) Full disclosure to the audience about how and why deception was used.

In the fall of 2010, The Toronto Star published a story exposing conditions in a senior’s home in Toronto. Reporter Dale Brazao went undercover as a resident to document the conditions. In a follow-up column, Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English defended the choice by citing the three conditions mentioned by Rosenstiel and Kovach. First, the issue of effective seniors' care is vital to the public interest in light of the aging population. Second, there was no other way to get a view of the real conditions without going undercover. And third, the deception was disclosed to the reader.

English further supported the investigation by stating that reporter Moira Welsh supplemented the investigative piece with more conventional approaches like searching through public records and speaking to sources. Additionally, the editorial team made an effort to conceal the identity of the residents in order to minimize harm.


The relationship between a source and a journalist can often be a complicated affair especially when deception is involved. While some might preach the objectivity norm with its prohibition on commenting, slanting or shaping the formulation of news, lying can sometimes find its way into a reporter’s daily practice (Schudson 150).
With the boom of social media and the Internet, journalists are experiencing more competition in an industry where they no longer hold the monopoly over gatekeeping. A simple thing as a source can be the difference between a forgettable daily news hit and an exclusive scoop.

But no matter how great the scoop, a scorned source will likely produce more long-term consequences than a fleeting story. While legal and monetary repercussions can be covered by the organization, a reporter's reputation cannot. Once the public catches on to a reporter's unethical conduct, it will likely carry on for years to come and possibly affect future stories and sources.

There's no simple answer to the dilemma of whether a journalist should or should not lie. But one thing is for sure; a little lie can have large implications.

Works Cited

Berkowitz, Daniel. "Reporters and Their Sources." Ed. Thomas Hanitzsch. The Handbook of Journalism Studies. Ed. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Carey, James. "The Dark Continent of American Journalism." Journalism: the Democratic Craft. By G. Stuart Adam and Roy Peter. Clark. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. 305. Print.

Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Kolker, Robert. "The Great Pretender?" New York Magazine -- NYC Guide to Restaurants, Fashion, Nightlife, Shopping, Politics, Movies. 4 Mar. 2002. Web. 11 Oct. 2010. <>.

Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers, 2007. Print.

Lee, S. , 2003-05-27 "Lying To Tell The Truth: Journalists And The Social Context Of Deception" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA Online <.PDF>. 2009-05-26 from

Malcolm, Janet. The Journalist and the Murderer. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Murphy, James E. "Press Responsibility and New Journalism." Journal of Communication Inquiry 3.27 (1978): 27-36. Print.

McLaughlin, Paul: Telephone interview. 22 Oct. 2010.

Schudson, Michael. "The Objectivity Norm in American Journalism." Journalism 2.149 (2001): 149-70. Print.

Seib, Philip M., and Kathy Fitzpatrick. Journalism Ethics. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College, 1997. Print.

Shapiro, Ivor. "Why They Lie: Probing the Explanations for Journalistic Cheating." Canadian Journal of Communication 31 (2006): 261-66. Print.

Stocking, Holly, and Nancy LaMarca. "How Journalists Describe Their Stories: Hypotheses and Assumptions in Newsmaking." Journalism Quarterly 67.2 (1990): 295-301. Print.