Is deception ever warranted?

As the expression says, “rules are meant to be broken.” But only highly unusual and extremely important situations would compel us to be less than open. Our foreign correspondents are most likely to confront such issues.

There could be a situation — perhaps in a war zone — where an NPR journalist feels endangered and decides that in order to get to safety s/he would be better off not letting others know s/he is a journalist. And that experience might turn into a first-person account of what the flight to safety was like. But we would not use it as an excuse to report information that otherwise violates our standards on openness.

If a repressive regime is arresting reporters and telling citizens not to speak with journalists, the only way to have conversations with people might be to keep our identities under wraps. We do not put anyone in danger, however, with our reporting on such conversations.

And if a repressive government is not allowing reporters inside its borders, we might not declare on our visa applications that we’re journalists. Such decisions need to be discussed in advance. Senior news management must be included in the conversations.

Other situations in foreign settings might require some deviation from our guidelines on openness. We trust our correspondents to make good decisions, to consult with their editors and to be transparent with listeners and readers about their work. We also talk about foreseeable problems — such as corrupt border guards who demand “tips” — before we venture out and work through how we will respond.

Domestically, there could conceivably be a story that’s so important we might consider the use of a hidden microphone because we exhausted all other ways to get the information. But only the rarest of circumstances might merit that decision. Some of the questions we would ask include: 

    • Is the story of profound importance?
    • Are lives at stake? 
    • Can the information be obtained any other way? 
    • Would the story irrevocably suffer without the information? 

We would only proceed with the approval of top NPR editors and after consultation with NPR’s legal department. The subjects of any criticism stemming from the material would be given a chance to respond. And when reporting on what we discover, we would fully disclose our methods to readers and listeners.

If we ever do consider taking the highly unusual step of recording an interview without the knowledge of one or more party, we follow the applicable state and/or local laws about the taping of conversations. A resource our legal team uses to determine which laws apply is a chart called “A Practical Guide to Taping Phone Calls and In-Person Conversations in the 50 States and D.C.,” prepared by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Again, our legal team should be consulted on any decision to act on this information.

But rather than focusing on theoretical exceptions, the point to remember is this: We do not deceive and we do our work in the open.

October 17, 2011

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