3. Identifying Sources from an Undercover Investigation

The use of undercover techniques poses a second substantial ethical dilemma. Does lying to or misleading a source in order to get the story influence how the source should be presented? Does a journalist have an obligation to protect the identity of that source? These questions represent a deviation from journalism’s presumptive starting point that sources should be identified to the audience in all instances.

The authors of Doing Ethics in Journalism add two criteria to the three-step test outlined in The Elements of Journalism that introduce the concept of a balance of harms. They are (1) that “the harm prevented by the deception must outweigh any harm caused by the act of deception” and (2) that “the journalists must conduct meaningful, collaborative and deliberative decision process in which they weigh such factors as their motivation and the consequences of the deception.” [1]

The motivation must always be the public interest – and it cannot be something as simple getting a reaction for the sake of shock value. “In other words, I don’t do it because I want to get Usher’s signature or reaction to the release of his latest record. There has to be some kind of compelling reason as well,” says Osborne. [2]

Winter says that this type of reporting is complicated and distinct from other journalistic practices like negotiating an off-the-record agreement with a source. “It is in a sense ending what we do on a regular basis, which is telling the truth,” says Winter. [3]



[1] Foreman, Gene. Deception, a Controversial Reporting Tool. The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in a Digital Age. 2015. 288.

[2] Robert Osborne. Interview done by Brittany Spencer. 2016.

[3] Jesse Winter. Interview done by Abby Plener. 2016.

Next: 4. When is Undercover Work Justified?