Lying, deception, journalism & the truth: some preliminary thoughts.

For my second supervised essay this term – and for my submitted essay to be written over the winter break – I will be focusing on deception. I’ll start by reading literature analysing what it is very broadly – how it relates to and differs from the stricter notion of lying, and the looser and less serious concept of bullshit. Then I’ll try to set out how much moral weight should be attached to each of them. That is, is deception, all things being equal, less wrong than lying? And relatedly, in what cases can either of them be justified or even required? Then once all that groundwork has been done, I want to address the very specific questions of when, if ever, journalists ought to lie or deceive the public.

I have a lot to read before my thoughts on these issues take a stronger shape, but in the meantime I wanted to lay out some preliminary thoughts and the intuitions that I’ll be trying to justify. This will help clarify things in my own mind, but it will also offer me the opportunity to get feedback from anyone that feels they have constructive comments to make.

My primary motive, then, inevitably flows from the Kantian perspective I tend to frame all moral issues in terms of. I undoubtedly prioritise, and cannot shake off, the thought that any plausible moral theory must attach strong weight to the wrongness of deception, and so my pursuing this area in its own right was only a matter of time.

But the questions about journalism in particular arose for me over the summer. In response to the Colorado massacre, CNN’s Anderson Cooper refused to name the killer on air. The rationale was that to do so would be to glorify him; to give him the publicity he craved. And implicit here was a message to any potential copycat killers: you won’t get air time by committing similarly awful acts.

Now, it seems to me that, despite appearances, this seemingly minor decision has vast implications, because on the face of it the purpose of journalism is simply to pursue and convey facts. Newspapers and networks are truth-facilitators, and this function appears to give rise to a duty acquired by any person taking on the identity of journalist to tell the truth. Nothing more, nothing less.

And in fact, Cooper himself accepts this. Around the same time, he wrote when coming out as gay that:

It is not part of my job to push an agenda, but rather to be relentlessly honest in everything I see, say and do. I’ve never wanted to be any kind of reporter other than a good one, and I do not desire to promote any cause other than the truth.

Emphasis mine. Cooper wants to be a good journalist, and he identifies this solely with truth-telling.

In light of Cooper’s decision not to name the Colorado killer, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute made a similar point:

Journalists report the who, what, when, where, why, how… Politicians can do what they want to do but that’s not a guide for us. Our job is to report who was arrested, how they did what they did – all of that is a legitimate function of journalism.

And Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Sunday Times, made a similar argument. He puts it so powerfully that it is worth quoting him at great length:

[E]thical journalism can — and  in my view should — be immune to the blandishments of respectability and  social responsibility.

The last thing a journalist needs to be is answerable for the consequences of  his stories, as long as they are accurate and written in good faith. What a  hack needs is to be relentless in pursuit of what the truth is — and to  parlay that into a confection that readers want and enjoy and learn from. If  that ends a presidency, makes a mass murderer a celebrity or encourages  people to do unwise things, so be it. Politicians can grandstand about the  need to maintain certain untruths for the common good; bishops can upbraid  journalists for shamelessness; but hacks should never try to be either.

Take the Dark Knight killer, James Holmes. Was it irresponsible to cover the  event with the breathless fascination that can make a mass killer some kind  of hero in his own mind? Should the press have refused to print his name or  show his face? Are the media somehow complicit in these events because the  perpetrators want fame and we hacks give it to them? If we never heard of  any mass murders, maybe a disturbed loser such as Holmes might not have  wanted to go down in a blaze of homicidal glory. But the job of the press is  not to think about such overarching questions — or to worry about being  scolded. It is to answer factual questions that people are interested in — at the precise moment they are interested. When a young man uses a film  premiere to do what Holmes did, it’s a story people want to hear…

I vividly recall the Sunday in 1996 when I wrote a story for The New York  Times Magazine, headlined “When plagues end”, about the transformative  effect of new HIV drugs in ending what had until then been a death sentence.  The piece was mercilessly pilloried. By claiming the plague was over I was  allegedly encouraging people to have unsafe sex again, which would lead to  more deaths. I could have claimed that spreading awareness about new HIV  treatment would save lives. But I didn’t. My only defence of the essay was  that it was true…

I also won no plaudits when, as editor of The New Republic, I published an  excerpt from the book The Bell Curve, along with 19 rebuttals. The Bell Curve explored the resilient but minor differences in IQ between racial  groupings in America and did not exclude some genetic basis for it.  Washington erupted in fury at the very idea of publishing such an argument:  I was a racist; I was a eugenicist; the entire staff refused to talk to me  for a while. But no one disputed the data, which had shocked and surprised  me at first, so I felt I had done my job. I had put in the public square a  set of facts whose meaning could then be debated.

Years later the genetic share of that minor racial difference in outcome seems  lower than The Bell Curve argued and the environmental impact much more  significant. Had I given succour to racists by raising the subject? Sure.  But that was no more my responsibility than if someone got infected with HIV  because of my essay on the end of the plague years.

I find these claims very appealing, and I think they may all centre around two thoughts: first, they may be motivated very generally by what Alan Gewirth has called the Principle of Intervening Action, which goes roughly like this:

– If Agent A performs act X which leads to consequence J, Agent A is rid of all responsibility for consequence J if another Agent B must perform act Y in between X leading to J in order for J to come about.

So when MLK planned sit-ins and was informed by the police that any participants would be beaten, MLK was not responsible for the subequent violence when he nevertheless went ahead and coordinated the protests. And this is because it is the police that do the wrong acts. When Martin Scorsese makes the film Taxi Driver and some nut is inspired to try to shoot the President, Scorsese isn’t blameworthy because it is the nut that decided to interpret his film in that foolish way. Nothing in the film itself compelled action. Similarly, it seems that a journalist who tells the truth in no meaningful sense ’causes’ the murders that take place in copycat crimes when they report massacres, and that’s because the murderer must ‘intervene’ and intend the consequence for the causal chain to be actualised.

Which lends support to the second powerful thought that journalism may be special insofar as it is a morally free zone. As Sullivan puts it – a non-philosopher, I should add – there is no need for an internal ethics department at newspapers to calculate likely consequences. Once a story is known to be true – and, presumably, to be in some sense ‘relevant’ and ‘worthy’ of reporting. These conditions would need analysing, but any massacre would surely meet such tests – that gives journalists decisive reasons to publish. They need not sleep with the thought that there is blood on their hands. This is a deeply Kantian picture of responsibility. As Korsgaard puts it, appraisal of action begins and ends with each agent; praise and blame is transferred like a torch.

Now, it may look like we got sidetracked, but bear with me. We will come full circle soon. But first we need to spell out the apparent dilemma and prove that it is a real dilemma.

The tension, then, is between the journalist’s pro tanto duty to tell the truth and their apparent licence to do so without incurring blame, on the one hand, and the fact this may lead to very bad consequences in the name of simply reporting the truth on the other. It looks to me like the journalist ought not to consider what people will do in reaction to their story, so long as it is true. But I can see why some may at the same time wonder: where does this truth-telling duty come from, and why could it possibly be so stringent? In fact, some people have expressed to me in person that such a duty would be so obviously absurd that it cannot exist. Obviously journalists can restrict their stories in the name of, for instance, preventing deaths.

To cast doubt on this dismissive claim, then, perhaps try testing your intuitions on some slightly different scenarios:

  1. If it were empirically proven that reporting economic facts which described a bad economic climate were self-reinforcing, exacerbating a lack of confidence which only boosted unemployment further, would it be wrong for journalists to tell the public we were in a recession?
  2. If a newspaper learns from its sources that, contrary to public insistence on ‘no negotiations’, two states were in fact open to talking about nuclear technology and economic sanctions once an election was over, but leaking such a possibility was likely to jeapordise its possibility — would that be wrong? (Hint: this actually happened).
  3. Wikileaks publishes facts about states doing bad things. This leads to heightened diplomatic tensions with potentially vast negative impact upon the state of international relations. Again, is it obvious that their pursuit of the truth was wrong?

And that concludes my case that there is work to be done here. If you aren’t pulled both ways by any of these scenarios then I must concede that you can’t be convinced.

Now, to tie things back to the ethics of lying and deception, it may seem that we can once more avoid a dilemma by saying that the journalist’s duty to tell the truth does not entail that she cannot omit information; it just means she cannot lie. So long as a report does not intentionally express anything false, the journalist is off the moral hook.

But it seems to me that whilst it may be true that a journalist who withholds the whole truth does not ‘lie’ in the strict sense, she nevertheless deceives, and the deception here is in fact as bad as lying would be.

My thought that there need not be a strict difference between the wrongness of lying and deceiving is driven by a simple thought. Compare the case in which a partner in a monogamous relationship who has made an implicit promise not to sleep with another person does so, and then explicitly says when questioned that they have not committed adultery, with a partner who commits adultery but is never asked if they have and never volunteers the truth. The former would involve a lie, the latter ‘mere’ deception. But I take it that both have done equal and indistinguishable wrong.

Similarly, then, it is at least possible that the fact a journalist does not strictly ‘lie’ by expressing a falsehood is besides the point, if they nevertheless intentionally omit information which leaves readers with a similarly misplaced picture of the world.

And my other thought on this distinction is a worry about the potential for a slippery slope. If we go down the route of saying that a journalist may deceive but not lie in the name of preventing any bad consequences that would flow from the truth, the question would be: why are the bad consequences sufficiently bad to licence deception, but not lying? If we are in principle open to limiting truth-telling in the name of other values, what is to stop the possibility that the journalist ought, in fact, to even lie in certain circumstances? And it looks to me like anyone entertaining the possibility that journalists ought to consider the consequences of truth-telling should consider whether this could be right. Yet to sanction lying in journalism is to seemingly annihilate the institution’s primary function and duty. Truth-telling – not intentionally deceiving – is a constitutive standard of the activity, and the activity is a noble one. Being willing to sacrifice that thought is not something we should do lightly.

2 thoughts on “Lying, deception, journalism & the truth: some preliminary thoughts.

  1. I really enjoyed this. The examples you’ve chosen to illustrate your points are perfect (feel free to teach me how to do that!) and the distinction between deception and lying are excellently made. I agree generally; either a journalist has a moral duty when reporting, or they don’t. You could, of course, argue that in reporting 100% truth, the journalist is abiding by moral law – the moral law that applies to journalists – just like (you could argue) a doctor must save the mass murderer on his operating table if he can, even if he has reason to believe the mass murderer would go on to kill someone. Your career can carry with it an obligation to do something, and it is arguably a component of your moral judgement that you abide by those laws just as well.

    Not to become all rule-utilitarian either, but there’s an argument for saying that “journalists should tell the truth” will lead to greater utility than “journalists should tell the truth when it’s in the best interests of the population”. Part of the reason the function of media is so vital to a working democracy and society is because of the asymmetry of information – the powerful know what they’re doing, the people it affects rarely do. The existence of a truthful media helps to rectify some of the power imbalance. Yes, you’re right in that telling the population we’re in recession may (or, for strength of argument, let’s say it “will”) lead to a deepening of the recession but if it’s governmental policies leading to this, then we have a right to know so that we can make an informed decision the next time elections come around.

    Looking forward to reading the essay itself, excellent post! 🙂

    • The analogous duty of a doctor to perform certain acts just by virtue of his identity without concern for the consequences is powerful and excellent.

      You’re also right about the consequentialist justification available for absolute truth telling in journalism: any conscious concern for deception is likely to detract from the value of the institution, and so journalists ought, perhaps, to just report without thinking about such things.

      I do get that. I just know on the borderline cases they have to wonder whether it’s really true, and they’ll inevitably want to make room for exceptions. And my thought is that we don’t want to make exceptions, even in the scenarios listed (an intuition I’m sensing you share).

      Many thanks for the feedback!

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