FBI Special Agent Joseph K. Stuart has plenty of experience getting people who don’t want to talk to spill their guts, and he’s happy to share his tips for getting information.
Build empathy, he told journalists at the Region 11 conference in Phoenix. Find common ground.
Like any good teacher, he used an example. Stuart was investigating a bank embezzlement. He had all the evidence, all the documents confirming a female employee’s guilt. It was time to talk.
He drove to her home, rang the doorbell. When she answered, he said, “Hello, I’m Agent Stuart, and I’m here for the interview you’ve been expecting. May I come in?”
They sat down. Stuart said he understood her situation. His own brother, living in another state, had dug himself into a hole of debt. He, too, had defrauded his employer. The brother was arrested and charged before Stuart heard about it. Stuart immediately went to his brother’s side and told his brother that he should have called, that Stuart would have done everything he could to help. It was late, Stuart told his brother, but he would see if he could work out something. Perhaps Stuart could repay the money his brother had stolen.
“So I told this woman, ‘I want to help you, too. I am extending my hand in friendship, but you have to help me. For me to help you, you need to tell me everything you did and why you did it,’” Stuart said. “She broke into tears and started talking. I couldn’t get her to shut up.”
Hands shot up across the room. “Is that story true?” someone asked.
“I don’t have a brother,” Stuart answered, matter of factly.
Murmurs spread. “Well then, you lied to her,” someone else said. “Is that ethical?”
Stuart didn’t back down. The courts have repeatedly upheld law enforcement’s right to lie to suspects to elicit a confession, he said. “If someone has abducted your child, do you care if I lie to get her back? I won’t even hesitate. If a lie will make a difference in getting a child back, you bet I’m going to lie.”
The murmurs got louder. I heard several people whisper to those around them, “I couldn’t do that for a story.”
It was an epiphany moment. Stuart was right. And so was every journalist in the room getting the willies just thinking about what he was suggesting.
In an FBI agent’s line of work, lying is a perfectly ethical thing to do. In a reporter’s line of work, it is a perfectly unethical thing to do. That doesn’t mean journalists are more ethical than FBI agents. It simply means that we work under different codes.
Ethics rarely are black and white. They do not carry the certainty of the law, where the lines are clearly drawn. Even within our own profession, we often argue about what is ethical and what is not.
Ethics is often a matter of balancing conflict. The SPJ Code of Ethics exhorts us to seek truth and report it, while minimizing harm. But reporting the truth can cause harm; every day we have to choose which is the greater good.
Stuart does the same thing. His goal is to see justice done. If it takes a lie to achieve it, so what?
You could almost extend that same reasoning to journalism. If it takes a lie to expose wrongdoing, why shouldn’t we do it? Some news organizations have, on occasion, decided that the greater good could only be achieved with a lie. The Chicago Sun-Times “Mirage Tavern,” in which reporters posed as bartenders to catch city officials demanding bribes, is a prime example. The approach is still debated.
It is the rare story that justifies a lie. It’s not just ethics, but pragmatism.
Stuart usually encounters a suspect only once. He doesn’t have to worry about establishing credibility with that suspect. And citizens generally just want the bad guys to go to jail, however they get there.
Reporters, though, often deal with the same people over and over. If sources find out you lied, they won’t talk to you again. And then there are our readers, viewers and listeners, who come to us with a certain amount of skepticism. If they think we’re lying to get stories, you can watch the audience shrink and our standing in the polls fall further. We would deserve it.
SPJ and other journalism organizations have ethics codes because there is an honorable way to do our jobs and a scuzzy way. It’s easier to sleep at night knowing we’re doing the honorable thing. And when we wake up in the morning, ethical conduct helps assure we’ll have a job to go to.
Robert Leger is president of the Society of Professional Journalists and editorial page editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.