Critical Approach: Lying in the grey area

by Michael Lyons

After the discussion on the ethical implications of Ken Silverstein’s work for “Their men in Washington,” in turn discussing Mark Lisheron’s “Lying to Get the Truth,” I really wish I had the chance to ask the class’s opinion on a real life news gathering scenario that we all learned about at the beginning of our degrees.

The Grey Area is a real place. In Amsterdam, of course.

The Grey Area is a real place. In Amsterdam, of course.

In September, a few weeks into the program, the two sections of our “Covering the City” course, which teaches on urban, city hall and court room reporting—readings centered around Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism, focusing on monolithic professional standards and objectivity—converged for a discussion with a well-known local star reporter.

The reporter’s description reporting on crime invariably ended up at the ongoing walking social psychosis that is Rob Ford. At one point the journalist was talking about reporting on the domestic disturbance calls from the Ford residence to police. I am paraphrasing, but the reporter explained how flat out asking police for information on a domestic disturbance call for a public official like Ford would be stonewalled. The reporter explained a strategy of calling the police service’s communications officers only using addresses, not names, and exaggerate the questions a little:

 

-Did police respond to a homicide at this address?

-No, police responded to a domestic disturbance.

 

Then the reporter would wait for shift a changeover, so a new office would respond. With every new call, the reporter would ask another question:

 

-Did police respond to a domestic disturbance at this address at 6 a.m.?

-No, the police responded to a domestic disturbance at 8 a.m.

 

Little by little, the reporter would piece together the story. Truth and straightforwardness often wouldn’t work, so the reporter would use strategic untruths and deceptions. Of course this is subtle and genius, and I, as well as others I’m sure, were duly impressed.

My point in classes was that people lie, in varying degrees, every day; journalists included. There’s, of course, a huge social moral difference between saying you’re “okay” when you’re actually having a crappy day, and government officials saying that everything’s okay when it’s not.

Unfortunately for everyone who wants very much to believe in extremes of good and evil, right and wrong, the moral landscape is coloured in varying shades of grey. I find it hard, in class, to listen to moralizing about lying to get the truth. Something that stuck with me in the readings is a part where I truly believe Silverstein said it best:

“Rather than focus on the lying, Silverstein told Kurtz, readers ought to ‘weigh my ethics in making up a firm against the ethics of agreeing to represent and whitewash the record of a Stalinist dictatorship. I’m pretty comfortable with that comparison.’ ”

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