Deception in journalism

Imagine you are online shopping and find the perfect item of clothing. Excitedly, you purchase this item of clothing and cannot wait for it to arrive. However, when you try it on, you realise you have been deceived. The item of clothing looks nothing like what it did online. You no longer trust that company.

There is no worse feeling than being deceived, right? It makes you feel betrayed and looking like a fool.

Truth-telling is considered a ‘default behaviour’, as it is essential to human connection. Trust can only occur if individuals feel assured the other party is being honest. Therefore, when information is withheld, misleading or made up; it is considered deceptive. Deception is a violation of trust and human connection.  Unfortunately, deception is a common occurrence in the field of journalism. This is of large concern, as journalists have a greater responsibility to tell the truth than most professions. Media audiences rely on journalists to inform them with reliable information. Hence, when journalists provide deceptive information to the public, it leaves many people fooled and paranoid.

Photo source: https://honisoit.com/2017/05/the-death-of-journalism/

The ‘Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’ have four core principals which journalists are expected to abide by. These are honesty, fairness, independence and respecting the right of others. Deception is inaccurate, fake and disrespectful, and therefore goes against all four of these ethical principals.

There are three types of deception in journalism.

  1. Investigative deception. This occurs when a journalist uses deceitful means to investigate information; such as claiming they are someone who they are not, or putting on a uniform to disguise themselves. This type of deception may be non-verbal, yet it is still considered deceptive if the journalist has lied to form a false belief.
  2. Interrogative information. When journalists fail to inform that the sources information is being recorded or used for a story. This is a journalist duty and failing to do so is deceptive.
  3. Informative deception. When journalists intentionally include false statements in a published story, which creates the audience consuming a false belief.
Photo source: https://www.searchenginejournal.com/journalism-skills-content-marketers-need/294127/#close

Ultimately, deception goes against personhood and negatively effects how humans communicate. Journalists have no special leave-pass to break the rules in order to investigate a story. The basic immorality of deception can be understood through the ‘rights point of view’, and the ‘rules- for- long -term good’ point of view.

The ‘rights point of view’ perspective suggests that people need the truth to exercise freedom and rationality that a just society can claim for all persons. It also suggests that a deceived person lacks independence and therefore alters their ability to control their destiny. To deceive one is to deny their right to shape their own lives the way they want. Therefore, a journalist who deceives completely disrespects their audiences.

The ‘rules for long term good’ perspective highlights the long-term destruction of trust deception creates. As author Bruce M. Swain puts it, “a reporter, not perceiving that his own particular deception actually erodes the public trust, feels freer to use deceptive means. Trust, the basis of human dialogue, erodes”. A journalist’s key priority is to ensure the publics is informed and therefore prepared to address certain issues. If a journalist is deceptive, the public loses trust and becomes anxious as to what is true or not.  The public’s right to know accurate and honest information should overall any excuse to be deceptive.

As seen by the ‘rule’ and ‘right’ perspectives, there are no benefits to deceptive journalism. So why do journalists do it? A deceiver’s motivation can be one of three things; achievement of power, avoidance of conflict or need to save face.

Photo source: https://theconversation.com/journalists-need-a-point-of-view-if-they-want-to-stay-relevant-33216

Claas Relotius is an example of a journalist using deception for their own selfish benefit. Relotius was a German world famous journalist and worked for world famous German magazine ‘Der Spiegel’. However, in 2018 Relotius admitted that a majority of his stories were either deceptive or completely fake. At least fourteen articles which were published by Der Spiegel that Relotius had written were deceptive. This includes an award-winning piece he wrote about a Syrian boy who believed his anti-government graffiti had triggered the civil war. However, Relotius had contacted the boy through ‘WhatsApp’, an unreliable and illegitimate source. Like many of his articles, this story had false characters and misleading information. Relotius even asked readers to donate money to support orphaned Syrian children on the streets. It was later discovered that the funds had indeed gone into his personal bank account.

Photo source: http://en.protothema.gr/cnn-journalist-of-the-year-resigns-from-der-spiegel-for-making-up-fake-news-for-years/

As a result of Relotius’ deceptive means, Der Spiegel released an article apologising on behalf of Relotius and admits that they had ‘failed to a considerable extent’ as a publishing company. The company acknowledges that they did not take action on the warning signs; e.g. Relotius often asked that for his international articles to not be translated to English. Steffen Klusmann, Der Spiegel’s future editor in chief, claimed ‘we have learnt that Claas Relotius is an ingenious swindler and are learning more with each passing day about the depths to which he sank’.

Photo source: https://fee.org/articles/the-claas-relotius-scandal-cnn-and-the-importance-of-skepticism-in-news-reading/

Relotius’ case was a wake-up call in the journalism field, and a perfect example of what not to do as a journalist. Relotius claimed he was ‘sick and needed to get help’. He voluntarily handed back four major press awards that he was awarded of and was stripped of many others. This case is known as the biggest fraud scandal in journalism in the past thirty years.

Photo source: https://www.cjr.org/special_report/margaret-sullivan-fahrenthold-ioffe-ben-smith-gay-talese-steve-coll.php

Overall, a journalist can avoid deception through ensuring all information provided is completely honest and accurate. It is also crucial that a journalist retrieves information in an ethical matter. In the modern-day world of fake-news and sensationalised media, journalists must strive to regain the public’s trust. After all, who is the public meant to rely on for information if they can’t trust journalists?

To find out more…

Braun, P 2009, ‘Deception in journalism’, Taylor & Francis Online, viewed 11/05/2019 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08900528809358312

Connolly, K 2018, ‘Der Spiegel reporter who faked stories returns awards’, The Guardian, viewed 9/05/2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/21/sacked-der-spiegel-reporter-claas-relotius-returns-awards

Finneman, T & Thomas 2018, ‘A Family of falsehoods: Deception, media hoaxes and fake news’, Sage Journals, viewed 11/05/2019 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0739532918796228

France-Presse, A 2018, ‘German ‘fake news’ reporter faces criminal complaint over Syrian children funds’, The Telegraph, viewed on 23/05/2019 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/12/23/german-fake-news-reporter-faces-criminal-complaint-syrian-children/

Klusmann, S 2018, ‘The Lessons We Are Drawing’, Spiegel Online, viewed on 8/05/2019, https://www.spiegel.de/international/claas-relotius-affair-the-lessons-we-are-drawing-a-1246823.html

MEAA 2019, ‘Journalist Code of Ethics’, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, viewed on 14/05/2019 https://www.meaa.org/meaa-media/code-of-ethics/

Sydney Morning Herald 2018, ‘Star German reporter quits after making up stories’, Sydney Morning Herald, viewed on 8/05/2019 https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/star-german-reporter-quits-after-making-up-stories-20181220-p50ne5.html