"There is no hard and fast rule," said James Carey, CBS
Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University. "The general
rule is that you are governed by the same standard of conduct and ethics
as other people. You don't lie and you don't deceive. But we also recognize
in our everyday conduct that we do these things if there is a larger interest
involved," said Carey.
He cites the 1971 case
of The New York Times
and the Pentagon Papers to point out an incident where the end result did
not justify deception. The
New York Times had received stolen secret documents that documented
the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. "If the justification for
publishing the Pentagon Papers was the public's right to know, as many assert,
the right was in force on the day the Times received the papers. The Times
chose to withhold publication for some months for editorial reasons. So, Times
chose to frustrate the public's right to know for some months in order to
serve its own needs and interests. If there were real ethical violations in
the case (and while I believe there were, it remains arguable), it was the
accepting of stolen property and the exhibition of disrespect for the court,"
he said. He added that those ethical violations were justifiable if the stories
that resulted showed that the dangers to the republic were of a great magnitude
"As the Pentagon Papers
in and of themselves do not show such a danger to the republic and could only
be made to do so if other information and interpretations were not added to
the papers, and given that the danger was remote enough to warrant delay of
publication for three months, I believe the justification for the breach is
very weak," he explained.
According to Carey, crimes
against humanity merit that justification. After World War II, he said, the
term "crimes against humanity" has entered common usage.
"These are crimes
that you can't justify. You can't say these crimes are right because the United
States or some other country committed them in war. It's not justified. So,
to publish a story that reveals these crimes, even if you use methods that
are deceptive, is justifiable," he said.
Even though most organizations
don't have a policy on it, Carey said they do have some norms that are a part
of their culture. "They have in-built red flags. They will let you make your
own judgment but it has be to be morally informed," he said.
"But I, myself, would
be uncomfortable about making a decision without consulting my editor. It's
not asking their permission but informing them. After all, you are trading
on the credibility of your organization. However, there are occasions when
you don't have time to inform them," he said.
As Carey said, in the
final analysis, deception is justified when a story is important. "What I
hate is when reporters use hidden cameras and the story is inconsequential.
It should not be just cowboy heroism," said Carey. "If the story is not justifiable,
all we are left with in the end is a morally flawed act."