This is a question of transparency and journalism ethics. And yes, some journalists and news organizations have been criticized and held responsible in court for just this situation.
In fact, undercover reporting isn’t as common as you might think. Many reporters balk at the ethical quandary of lying for the greater journalistic good. The legal departments at news organizations have even more adverse reactions.
There have been high-profile cases of undercover reporting that backfired. One of the biggest was in 1992 when two ABC News journalists went undercover as employees at Food Lion grocery stores. With hidden cameras, they alleged that old meat was being washed with bleach to cover the smell and then sold to customers.
The report on “PrimeTime Live” was explosive. But Food Lion responded with a lawsuit against ABC News and won, saying they had no First Amendment right protection after they had falsified their job applications. Because of those falsehoods, the court also found they were trespassing. After appeals, the judgment against ABC News stood at $2 million.
Now, a common guideline in newsrooms is that journalists can’t break the law to cover a story. That means no entering a property with a “No Trespassing” sign and no misrepresenting yourself on a signed document.
Another common guideline requires journalists to properly identify themselves when asked — but if no one asks, they don’t have to say who they are. For example, sometimes a property such as a shopping mall prevents a TV videographer with a huge camera from shooting inside. The same camera person could go in the mall and shoot video with an iPhone, unless a security person asks their identity and orders them to stop.
And yet even that approach has been criticized. A number of TV stations conducted similar undercover reports to test school security by seeing if a reporter could gain access by just walking in unannounced with a hidden camera. In St. Louis, it even caused a school lockdown when staff noticed the reporter roaming the hallways.
“Is it O.K. for them to set a fire and see how fast the fire department responds?” Kirkwood Superintendent Thomas Williams said to The New York Times. “It’s a safety issue. It’s not responsible. It’s the wrong way to do it.”
After initially defending the report, the station apologized and said it has changed its policy on undercover reporting so that it would not happen again.