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Undercover journalism: Balancing public interest and individual privacy

To what extent is the use of evasive techniques in undercover journalism justifiable?

Albeit the physical and mental ramifications they go through to cover stories, most undercover journalists often defend lawsuits after their investigations.

Oftentimes, these lawsuits have been linked to the fact that there is a breach of individual privacy while trying to achieve the right of the public to know.

Undercover journalists engage in secret or covert filming. As a result, the sole independent account of the wrongdoing these journalists document may be information that is collected without the full consent of the participants under investigation.

These recorded exposes have changed working procedures, altered the law, shut down institutions, and even resulted in the imprisonment of culprits.

Three MPs received prison sentences for making false expense claims as a result of the undercover reporting by the Telegraph. This was described as the ‘biggest political scandal’ to hit the British Members of Parliament.

It has however been noted that the methods of information gathering used by such journalists draw the line and highlight the conflict between the public's right to know the truth and a person's right to anonymity and privacy.

Ethics in undercover journalism

From an ethical perspective, journalists must take into account the fact that privacy is a fundamental human right.

In accordance with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ‘’everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.’’

As such, it is an important interest that is required to be protected, either by the law or by ethical conduct.

Clause 2 of the IPSO editor code also affirms this by stating that “everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.”

The practical repercussions of this may be severe, including lawsuits brought against the news organization or the journalist.

However, if there is a blatant public interest in the topic, various ethical norms may be broken, according to the media regulatory agencies for British journalists.

This connotes the idea that, in some instances, journalists can invade the privacy of individuals to unearth pertinent issues.

Journalists derive this principle from Section 10 of the IPSO editor code:
Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)
“Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means”.

Public interest

This denotes specific criteria by which the usual legal rights of an individual or organisation (e.g., to defend their reputation, or protect confidential matters, privacy, or copyright) are justifiably overridden by the need for information to be published to benefit society.

Such decisions can be ethically justifiable as long as journalists are able to ascertain "who will benefit as a result of the reporting".

In this sense, public interest provides justification for journalists infringing on the right to privacy of individuals.

This notion also underscores the moral authority of journalists to invade the privacy of others and to occasionally test the boundaries of ethical practice to discover the truth.

A last resort

Malak Khalil, an editor at Al Jazeera Media Institute has indicated that going undercover should be a last resort used only after all other methods have failed you.

“Going undercover should be a final resort to obtain information. You [undercover journalists] should have exhausted all of [the] other options” she explained.

She further narrated that undercover journalism is often open to numerous criticisms. it is incompatible with the values of transparency, honesty, and protection of the human right to privacy.

Striking the balance

Although individual rights are very important, the rights of the wider population are more important, especially when it comes to matters of great public importance where the rights of the majority should take precedence over those of the individual.

The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 also gives journalists the right to access such information held by public authorities.

The undercover journalist must however note that in the IPSO editor code, only the privacy of a suspect can be breached when other methods of data collection have proven ineffective.


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