"Stingers From Our Past" - Joel Meares - CJR

James O’Keefe’s predecessors, their stings, and their ethics

Byline: Joel Meares; 2011-03-10; Columbia Journalism Review; 

Report: Undercover Journalism Debated

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With James O’Keefe’s latest video sting taking two scalps at NPR this week, we thought it timely to revisit some infamous recent and not-so-recent journalistic stings. From The Mirage Tavern to, yes, James O’Keefe—we didn’t go back so far as Nellie Bly—we’re checking out what happened in each case, what went down after the sting went public, and then giving our thoughts on just how much merit the controversial deception approach had in each case.  How exactly do we assess such a thing? It’s not scientific. But Poynter’s Bob Steele has ventured in the past to provide a checklist of rather strict guidelines that must all be adhered to if deception is to be justified in journalism. These include: the information obtained being in the public interest; all alternative methods of obtaining the information being exhausted; the story being told fully; any harm prevented outweighing the harm caused by the deception; and all ethical and legal issues being closely considered. With those in mind, and the particulars of each case on hand, here’s our trip down an ethically murky memory lane.