You can sense her disapproval when she compares James O’Keefe’s ACORN sting with Ken Silverstein’s, but she doesn’t come out and say what I think she’s thinking: that O’Keefe is a crackpot and Silverstein is a genius. Instead, she writes, “What is most important in these cases is the exercise of sound journalistic judgment: to establish first if the deception was important enough to perpetrate, and after that, if accepted journalism standards have been fully adhered to and met, and if that can be reliably verified.”

If you’ve ever reported a story, you automatically understand the appeal of telling lies to get to the truth—they can be a wonderful shortcut! Conventional shoe-leather reporting requires time, sources, and energy, and must produce genuine findings in order to get published. But lie-based journalism works like EPO on both journalists and readers—it permits journalists to write bigger and faster (as if they’re writing a review of their own improv drama!), and the cat-and-mouse quality of the deception gives readers an extra, entertaining thrill. Not that giving readers a thrill is a bad thing, but I draw the line at turning news stories into episodes of Punk’d. Kroeger appreciates this, writing that even the well-intended sting can backfire and “veer off into the ridiculous or purely sensationalistic.”

Undercover Reporting intends to provoke its readers, and it did me. If an editor thinks he should launch an investigation with overt lies because overt lies pave the quickest path to the hard-to-get truths, why should he stop there? Why not have his reporters pepper whole, hard-to-get stories with plausible lies and half-truths as long as they propel a story to the ultimate truth? Why not lie to readers, too? We journalists don’t trust sources who lie. Then why should we trust reporters who do the same? When I was an editor, I occasionally had trouble keeping my less-scrupulous writers on the straight and true. When I imagine giving them—or even my most conscientious reporter—a license to make things up in order to get a story, my mind derails. Kroeger’s thoughtful openness to telling direct lies has turned me full-force against the technique.

 

More in Review

Talking trash

Read More »

Jack Shafer writes a column about the press and politics for Reuters.