Can reporters pretend to be someone else?

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April 24 2009 5:48 PM

The Fake Sheikh

Are reporters allowed to misrepresent themselves?

Rubina Ali. Click image to expand.
Rubina Ali

Indian police announced Thursday that they would not charge the father of Slumdog Millionaire star Rubina Ali and called off an investigation into claims that he tried to place his daughter for adoption in exchange for cash. A reporter for News of the World, posing as a wealthy sheikh, had offered $400,000 for the girl. Are reporters allowed to misrepresent themselves?

Yes, in Britain. According to the Press Complaints Commission, an independent body that monitors the British press, a reporter can engage in "misrepresentation or subterfuge," but only when it is deemed "in the public interest." Anyone can lodge a complaint with the PCC, which then investigates the claim. If someone were to bring a complaint against the News of the World for its reporting methods in the Slumdog story—so far, no one has—the paper would have to show that the story served the public interest. If the PCC upheld the complaint, the paper would then be required to publish its ruling in the paper and on its Web site. There's no monetary or legal penalty.

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The public interest is broadly defined, but it could include exposing crime or impropriety, protecting public safety, or preventing the public from being misled, according to the PCC's code. The code also states that "[i]n cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child."

Complaints about misrepresentation also hinge on whether deceit was really necessary to get the story. A friend of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife complained that the News had sent two undercover reporters to her health club in 2005 and recorded their conversations with her in order to prove that she exploited her relationship with the Blairs to attract clients. The PCC determined that the story did serve the public interest and that the paper could not have gotten the information any other way. In 2001, by contrast, the commission upheld a complaint filed by a London primary school that an Evening Standard reporter had unnecessarily misidentified himself as a prospective teacher in order to write about the school's problems.

The Slumdog case is hardly the News of the World's first sting operation. One of its reporters, Mazher Mahmood, is famous for dressing up as a sheikh and luring victims into compromising situations. In 2006, George Galloway complained that Mahmood had tried to trick him into taking illegal political funds and agreeing to anti-Semitic statements. In 1997, Mahmood persuaded British actor John Alford to bring him cocaine and marijuana at his hotel and filmed the whole thing. (Few British papers take advantage of the rule to the extent that News of the World does.)

In the United States, most news organizations have an ethics policy that prohibits reporters from misrepresenting themselves. For example, the New York Times' policy says: "Staff members and others on assignment for us should disclose their identity to people they cover, though they need not always announce their occupation when seeking information normally available to the public. Those working for us as journalists may not pose as anyone they are not—for example, police officers or lawyers."

But some American news organizations have loose standards, too. In 2005, the Spokesman-Review hired a computer-forensics expert to pose as a teenager on a gay chat site in order to expose Spokane, Wash., mayor Jim West. DatelineNBC famously lures pedophiles with promises of sex with underage teens in its "To Catch a Predator" segments. Reporters from a Minnesota Fox affiliate recently cruised the streets in an unmarked SUV to see whether young kids would respond when they asked for directions. *

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Stephen Abell of the Press Complaints Commission and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute.

Correction, May 4, 2009: This article originally suggested that subterfuge could be invoked to prove "actual malice" in libel cases.