Is Lying To Reach a News Source Unethical?

Last week, Marina Marraco, a reporter at Fox 5 DC, interviewed Prince George’s County resident Deonte Carraway who is being accused of filming child pornography.

But to reach him for comment, Marraco and Fox 5 news photographer Van Applegate told jail guards that they knew him from church, rather than admitting that they were journalists.

As journalists, we learn to admire individuals like Nellie Bly, who posed as a mental patient so she could write about the mistreatment at Blackwell Island’s Insane Asylum. Her work, which some may call unethical, brought about reform – an example of the ends justifying the means.

But we also learn to follow ethics and not misrepresent ourselves.

In the past, journalists were able to get big scoops and break important stories without lying about who they were. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke Watergate. Dana Priest exposed terrible conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Many journalists in the Vietnam War showed the realities of the war.

Every one of these journalists acted as journalists.

But the story of Fox 5 DC’s reporters is not so simple. While the guards did not know the pair were journalists, Carraway did. Applegate said Carraway “was appreciative of the fact that [they] were there to talk to him and understand his side of the story,” according to The Washington Post.

So is it unethical to lie to people to get to a subject, even if you tell the subject you are a journalist?

The guards were not a part of the story and neither were the rest of the staff. It is most important that Carraway himself knew that his words were going to be published.

While the jail does have procedures for the media to get interviews with inmates, oftentimes procedures take a lot of time, which journalists don’t have. And even though ethics don’t go out the window just because there is a deadline, journalists do not all follow the same code of ethics.

In this case, the journalists did not break the law, they did not misrepresent themselves to the subject and they sought to get all sides of the story.