A few days after the Las Vegas mass shooting, an associate approached me with an idea for an investigative piece of journalism. He said a relative of his didn’t qualify to own a firearm in Arizona because she had a mental health issue. He suggested we could go undercover and follow her as she sought to purchase a firearm from a local gun shop. If she was able to buy a gun, we could expose the shop for not doing the required background checks.
I thanked him for the suggestion but said sting operations aren’t journalism. It is unethical to create the news you intend to cover. Our job is to observe and report, not conspire and create.
That’s why the recent attempt by Project Veritas, an ultraconservative crowd-funded group, to expose the Washington Post is so disturbing. The group uses disguises and hidden cameras to try and get journalists, government workers and charity volunteers to say or do something that supposedly exposes their liberal bias.
Of course, their plan backfired this time, and they were exposed.
Monday the Post reported how a woman affiliated with the group tried to convince Post reporters that she had been impregnated by Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore when she was 15 and had an abortion — all of which was false.
The newspaper outlined how it began to doubt Jaime Phillips’ story before anything was printed. She told a Post reporter that she had spent only a summer in Alabama decades ago, but her mobile phone had an Alabama area code. The company where she claimed to work had no record of her. Finally, a researcher located a crowd-funding webpage under the woman’s name seeking money to move to New York for a job in the conservative media movement.
Journalism professors and industry experts have praised the Post for the way it handled the attempted sting operation.
“This is how good journalists do their jobs and how they don’t get taken in by hoaxes,” said Jane Kirtley, an expert in media law in Minnesota. “It’s such an important lesson.”
“It was such an amazing piece of journalism,” said Dan Kennedy, a professor at Northeastern University. “One can only imagine the world of hurt we’d all be in in journalism if the Post had been taken in” by the ruse, he said.
Even established conservative media were disgusted by the group’s tactics.
Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative Media Research Center, told The Associated Press that Project Veritas and its controversial leader, James O’Keefe, did “nothing but hurt the cause of conservative journalism.”
Bozell called it a “shameful” act of deceit, an effort at entrapment through misleading means.
“If this was a liberal, we’d all be screaming from the highest rooftops,” Bozell said. “Let’s be honest.”
There can be liberal or conservative bias in journalism based on story selection or emphasis. But there are some basic rules good journalists on both sides of the political spectrum follow — don’t fabricate or intentionally manufacture news.
In the early 1900s reporters took an advocacy role with undercover stories exposing the working conditions in manufacturing and coal mining. They became known as “muckrakers.” The stories that appeared in magazines and newspapers at the time led to legislative reform in those industries, especially when it came to child labor. While many of the muckrakers went undercover, taking regular jobs in the industries to observe the conditions, they didn’t necessarily resort to sting operations.
A couple years ago, Utah Congressman Rob Bishop praised Project Veritas in a speech on the House floor, calling the work of the group true “investigative journalism.”
Later, when I met Bishop at a function, I told him entrapment isn’t journalism. I said he could praise the work of the group all he wants, just don’t call it journalism.
Andy Howell is assistant managing editor. You can reach him at email@example.com or 520-423-8614.