Friday, October 20, 2006

Inspector Clouseau, Conspiracy Theories and the Threatiness Exception

This is a follow up to this story. The full reply from the New Scientist is now posted here. I thought Denise O'Leary's comments on the undercover tactics were noteworthy, and I wanted to tie those in to another issue. O'Leary said in part:

At the Discovery Institute’s blog, John West quotes from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

which helpfully highlights the issue. Incidentally, the original adds “Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story” - another important consideration. Readers have a right to know how the information was obtained.

Undercover media investigations have often served the public interest by exposing rackets, corruptions, shoddy practices, and deceptions, in situations where it was really true that the information could not be obtained in any other way.

So here is where the issue gets tricky, in my view: Celeste Biever’s editors may very well honestly believe that

1. All IDEA clubs are run by six-day creationists,

2. They are lavishly financed (of course!) by fundie whackjobs, and

3. Their real purpose is to impose theocracy on the United States.

. . . .

So now: What if the New Scientist editors assume that the IDEA clubs are actually deceiving the public when they say, no, that’s all nonsense.

In that case, Biever’s story editor will think it’s no good asking the IDEA-ers for information. The reporter must go under cover in order to catch them “really” doing what the editors think they do.

The curious thing about the ethics rule cited above is that it contains this exception: "except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." This raises lots of interesting questions: Who decides whether the exception is met? How reasonable does the belief need to be? Does it need to be based on solid information, or can it be based on one person's belief in wacky conspiracy theories? What if it is based on misinformation that has been repeated over and over so that no one bothers any longer to check the facts?

Krauze at Telic Thoughts has spoken of "threatiness." Are beliefs based on threatiness alone enough to satisfy the exception? Is a belief by one reporter that the leaders of the Cornell IDEA club secretly want to overthrow our Constitutional form of government and impose a theocratic dictatorship enough to satisfy the exception? What about beliefs based on false stereotypes or bigotry?


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