Ethics of Investigative Journalism


One of the topics discussed in my media unit at university was ethics. This wasn’t specific to journalism – it referred to other things, from entertainment media to advertising – but the rest, while interesting to know, isn’t worth talking about here. I’ve already written one piece trash talking commercial TV shows and giving more time to it would almost validate it as worthwhile. Besides, investigative journalism and political news is much more fascinating, right? Right?

I have also, in an earlier piece, spoken about the use of covert means to uncover a story that is in the public’s interest. For that, I used Al Jazeera’s sting operation on One Nation staffers seeking donations from the NRA. The revelation was only a shock because it was soon after the Christchurch terror attack; if not for that, considering they did not receive the donations they sought, it was hardly surprising – One Nation are hypocritical and populist, who knew.

But it sparked a debate on the cliché ‘do the ends justify the means’ in terms of ethical conduct in the media – was it wrong to masquerade as someone else, to take covert measures, when reporting? At the time, I made the point that if it was in the public’s interest to know about the actions of our political parties, especially when it involved dealings that shape policy. The ABC’s Paul Barry thought the same, defending the ABC’s decision to air the Al Jazeera documentary How to Sell a Massacre.

It is worth noting that Steve Dickson, one of One Nation people to go to the US (along with James Ashby), has now resigned after further footage of him in a strip club making sexist slurs and talking about his sexual endeavours in the Philippines was released. I find it odd that that – not to detract from it necessarily – is what led to a resignation and not the fact he courted the NRA for funding to shape our elections. I suppose, however, if that were to be the standard for resignation then the entire Coalition and some Labor folk would all be out of the job. Couldn’t possibly have that.

When it comes to public interest, there would be few actions and methods that I would deem unethical. My class was presented a scenario where we, as a journalist, were interviewing a Minister about a plan to build some luxury development resort of some sort. There were concerns that said development may result in 100 low-income families being evicted to make way for it – that was the context. The Minister walks out for a moment, leaving you alone in the room, and on the desk is a document that not only confirms the rumours but shows the Minister has a conflict of interest in this deal. Question was: do we take a photo of the document and report on it, or keep quiet because it wasn’t public or officially disclosed information?

Unsurprisingly, everyone who had responded said they would – not only would it be in the public interest, but for the potentially affected families it would be unethical not to reveal it. Arguing ethics in cases like that, or say whistleblowers like Witness K, is a tedious academic exercise – it is without a doubt completely justified. The wellbeing of the public and exposure of government crimes or conflicts of interest will always come before the ‘confidentiality’ of such information.

If it weren’t for those that blurred the line of ‘ethics’, like Witness K, Assange/Manning/Snowden, or those that bring dissident views and truthful reporting in opposition to the mainstream narratives, then we would be forever ignorant. Obviously there are standards and expectations when handling sensitive material, but more often than not it’s better to leave it in public view than let those in power keep it hidden.


Read the posts about Al Jazeera starting HERE

Previous piece: Don’t Know Who to Vote For?

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