Citizen journalist James O’Keefe took down a national organization with tactics long considered unethical by traditional journalists.

By Jon Hussey

Undercover journalism is alive and thriving among citizen journalists.

I was first introduced to the concept of undercover journalism when I read Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, in high school. In 1904, Sinclair went undercover in a Chicago meatpacking plant and exposed horrific working conditions. More than a century later, conservative blogger James O’Keefe has bankrupted the community group ACORN with similar tactics.

But didn’t undercover journalism become unethical decades ago?

As an undergrad journalism student, I was taught to always identify myself and the newspaper I was writing for any time I did an interview. That rule stripped me of the visions of cloak and dagger journalism I had after reading The Jungle. There would be no Serpico meets Carl Bernstein heroics.

Unfortunately, many citizen journalists have never had a journalism professor. They haven’t been read the rules and are operating without restrictions. If journalism is to be truly collaborative, shouldn’t everyone be playing with the same rulebook?

Two Centuries, Two Causes, One Tactic

A socialist, Sinclair hoped his undercover work would expose the plight of the turn-of-the-century worker.

But it was a 12-page section of the book, on the nation’s meatpacking industry, that created a national uproar and forced the government to create regulations on food preparation.

In Sept. 2009, O’Keefe, a blogger for BigGovernment.com, dressed as a pimp and secretly videotaped officials from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The officials’ conduct, seen in videotapes O’Keefe edited, left ACORN under intense scrutiny. The scrutiny, much of it fueled by cable news stations, eventually forced the government to respond by pulling all funding for the organization.

In both cases, a journalist with a political agenda used a disguise to infiltrate a community, expose it, and force policy change. While every journalist longs to expose wrongdoing and affect change, do the ends justify the means?

Skirting the Rules

James O’Keefe didn’t have to worry about journalistic ethics. But when Fox News began airing his videotapes of ACORN employees, the network should have been concerned about ethics.

Fox News’ coverage of the story forced the other cable news outlets to report. Once the story got into the non-stop media stream, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the rest of the nation’s trusted newspapers began covering the story.

Their coverage was fueled by a competitive media market. But did anyone at those news organizations question the content or the means with which it was obtained?

Whether traditional journalists like it or not, community journalists are becoming part of the news landscape. It’s time to take a serious look at the ethical implications of this landscape.

Either news outlets need to ignore stories produced unethically by community journalists or traditional journalists need to be given greater leeway in their reporting.

Or perhaps any community journalist producing content for a traditional news outlet needs to have a few hours in front of a journalism professor to learn about ethics.

Without some ethical structure, history will continue to repeat itself.

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