The Chicago Sun-Times shows “The Mirage” series again

If you’re into media ethics history — or just like to see power-chord journalism with a slice of ethical quandries — then take a look at The Chicago Sun-Times online publication of The Mirage series.

In 1977, The Chicago Sun-Times went undercover with the non-profit Better Government Administration and CBS to show rampant corruption among public officials who regulate businesses. Their bar, aptly named “The Mirage,” was chock-full of cameras and other equipment that allowed reporters to surreptitiously capture the full-on glory of graft, bribes and threats.

The series, published in 1978 and later as a book, led to lots of convictions and calls for reform — and a fight over the ethics of deception that continues to rage. Pulitzer judges in the general reporting category gave the series its nod for a win, but Washington Post editor (and Pulitzer board member) Ben Bradlee persuaded others that such deception was not award-worthy.

Since then, there are plenty of examples of deception and undercover work by journalists. But none seems to have received the attention drawn by that bar.

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When is it right to break a law for a greater good?

British regulators are starting an inquiry into Sky News, which acknowledged that it  hacked into email accounts in search of information about a canoeist who faked his own death and an alleged pedophile who later died in prison.

As The Independent newspaper reported on April 13:

John Ryley, head of Sky News, told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that occasions where a journalist would break the law in pursuit of a story would be “very, very rare.”
“Journalism is at times a tough business,” he said. “And we need at times to shed light into wrongdoing. There may be an occasion. It would be very, very rare.”

Several times in Doing Ethics in Media, we discuss that sometimes there’s justification to break a law in order to do a greater good:
* In Chapter 4’s discussion of moral development, we note Kohlberg’s hierarchy that says highly developed people might be willing to break the rules.
* In Chapter 7’s discussion of truth, we note that most journalism ethics codes don’t outright forbid undercover operations (a form of lying) but provide guidelines related to when doing something that might be morally questionable would be appropriate as the best or only way to do that greater good.

Is this one of those cases where the news organization was justified in breaking the law?

The Levenson Inquiry may help decide that, although it’s more focused on legal issues than moral nuances. The Guardian newspaper says British laws against breaking into private communications do not mention “public good” as a defense.

Moreover, some circumstantial evidence may not work in Sky News’ favor, including the fact that:
* Sky News didn’t tell the truth the first time it was asked whether it had intercepted email. Chapter 13 notes that mass communicators should be transparent in their decision-making, both willing and able to defend themselves. (As the “How’s it going to look” question says,”…imagine what your friends and people you respect will think.” about your decision.)
* There are phone hacking issues surrounding News Corp., which owns a partial interest in Sky News. While no one here suggests that the phone hacking that occurred at News Corp. tabloids and the Sky News email hacking are related, some people might make that connection. Either way, the two different sets of questionable actions adds up to people who lump “media” into a single category.
* Sky News planned on turning over what it found to police. (Some might argue that police and journalists ought not to work together.)
* The managing editor who authorized the hacking isn’t with Sky News anymore. Cole says his retirement was planned and not connected to the investigation. But given that the company lied to the government when first asked about the hacking, credibility is already low.

Questions to ask:
* What do you think?
* In what circumstances can journalists break the law for a greater good?
* Should journalists be legally responsible for their actions when they break laws for a greater good?
* How important is accountability/transparency in such situations?
* Is this posting fair in mentioning the News Corp. connection to Sky News?

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Facebook, public relations firm caught trying to (anonymously) slam Google

The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons and USA Today called out Facebook and its (now-former) public relations agency, Burson-Marsteller, for trying to hide its hand while asking reporters to look into negative reports about Google’s efforts at social media.

When one blogger asked who was Burson-Marsteller’s client, the PR firm wouldn’t say.

The PRSA Code of Ethics calls this is a no-no: “Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.”

The PR firm said in a brief statement that the incident wasn’t usual operating procedure, noting that  “we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients.” You won’t see the word “apologize” in the statement. It did not fire the people involved (both former journalists) and said it would remind its workers that transparency is key.

The Daily Beast says either Facebook or the PR firm is lying about who decided not to tell reporters that Facebook had hired the company.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations said such activities are, increasingly rare, noting that taking on a competitor “worked best when done through ‘open dialogue’.”

Slate’s Jack Schaffer says people should not make too big a deal out of what happened, but not because it was a tiny breach of ethics:

In a perfect world, PR firms should always identify their client whenever whispering or speaking loudly, so five demerits and three days of timeout for Burson-Marsteller. But reporters are not innocent, naïve, delicate flowers. Every reporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PR people were being paid to push the truth, they’d be called reporters.

And PC Magazine’s John Dvorak, who has been writing about technology for decades, says this is nothing new. He predicts that we can expect more of this as PR firms and companies try to pitch bloggers who may not be as sophisticated about such things.

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No media ethics in discussion of what’s legal in advertising

Advertising Age reminds its readers of “Nine Things You Can’t Do in Advertising if You Want to Stay on the Right Side of the Law,” which turns into a reminder that there’s a legal distinction between puffery and a false claim. (Summary: Lie and the government will smack you down. BS all you want.)

The AdAge piece provides multiple examples of ads that meet (and fail to meet) requirements of the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau, and notes that failure to follow the division’s rulings “can result in government action.”

Nowhere in the article do you find the word “ethics,”  which suggests to us that  just because something like puffery is legal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ethical.


  • How does this topic tie into the questions “Why not follow the rules?” (from Chapter 2) and “What’s it worth?” (from Chapters 7 and 9).
  • Chapter 7 of Doing Ethics in Media looks at puffery under the context of the correspondence theory of truth ( p. 209). Why? What theory of truth can best handle the idea of puffery as an ethical form of influence?
  • If you were in charge of regulating advertising, would you add tighter restrictions on puffery, loosen restrictions, or keep it about the same? Why?
  • If you believe that puffery is fine for advertising, then should it be fine for other forms of communication, such as journalism? Why or why not?
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