Journalists and Ethics: Prank Calls

Posted by Katie Minnick

This week, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker received a phone call from David Koch, one of the governor’s wealthy, conservative supporters, so he thought. Later, it was revealed that the caller was actually Ian Murphy, the editor of the Buffalo Beast, an online liberal newspaper based out of Buffalo, N.Y.

Photo from Buffalo Beast's website. Used for educational & journalistic purposes.

Walker and Murphy held a 20-minute conversation, which Murphy recorded through Skype, discussing Walker’s tactics to gain supporters and voters. Walker dismissed the call, saying it would not stop him from continuing his policies. Many are outraged at some of the tactics Walker described in the phone call.

Aside from the politics of the situation, there is another large problem with this incident: journalistic integrity. Although the practice of misrepresentation on a phone call may not be illegal, is widely looked down upon by many people and journalistic organizations. The Society of Professional Journalists condemned Murphy’s actions. Hagit Limor, president of SPJ, said of the incident, “This may be how Hollywood portrays reporters, but no journalist worth his salt ever would misrepresent his name and affiliation when seeking an interview. Murphy should be ashamed not only of his actions but of besmirching our profession by acting so shamelessly.”

The SPJ logo. Used for journalistic & educational purposes.

The Code of Ethics provided by SPJ states that, “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” Although the Buffalo Beast may provide an extremely biased and slanted view of news and politics, they still have moral and ethical obligations as journalists. If we as journalists are not honest and moral, no one will trust us.

Do you see this incident as unethical or wrong? Or was Murphy just using a unique tool of reporting to gather information that the public ought to know? Are journalists becoming “too loose” in their ethics?

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8 responses to “Journalists and Ethics: Prank Calls

  1. I do think this incident was unethical and I am glad SPJ had something to say about. Journalists need to draw the line somewhere because a good writer should not need to use outlandish tactics to get good information.

    • I agree Kelly. I know a lot of good stories have been found because of outlandish tactics, but does that constitute good journalism? I think it’s a hard line to draw. Where is the line exactly? Is it universal, or based on the journalist and his or her own personal ethics?

  2. I definitely believe this situation is unethical. I don’t think any good journalist should have to resort to deceitful tactics such as this to get an interview or information for a story, and, though the call may have brought out hidden truths, reporting in a manner like this sounds an awful lot like libel to me. I’m glad SPJ spoke out against this, and I hope the public takes notice of their stance.

    • Would it be considered libel? I’m not sure exactly.. If Walker was telling the truth, then I don’t know how much of a case he would have. However, I guess he was tricked into saying things that could hurt his reputation.

      I’m surprised at people are much more upset over what Walker said, rather than how he was tricked into saying it. The Buffalo Beast to me, is a disgrace to journalism.

  3. Michael Ujifusa

    I’m upset that Governor Walker considered planting”troublemakers” within the ranks of the protestors. I’m also slightly terrified that the Governor is in collusion with the Koch brothers, Walkers largest campaign contributors, owners of the second largest privately owned company in the United States and the sons of Fred Koch; founder of the John Birch Society. This was clearly unethical journalism, however it does not even compare to level of corruption that the prank call exposed.

    • I completely agree. However, was this proper way for the corruption to be exposed? Is there a more ethical way to expose corruption rather than lying and manipulating (which could be a form of corruption in itself)?

  4. Christy Wittmer

    I feel a majority of the public doesn’t trust journalists enough as it is. This probably didn’t come as a surprise to some people. I feel the fact that he needed to pretend he was somebody else to get information says a lot about him as a journalist. Makes me wonder if the public hates him? We need to be sure we treat our ethics as more than a bunch of words on paper. We should do what we can to serve the public and be professionals they can trust.

    • The funny thing is, is that in the past few weeks, we haven’t heard anything about Ian Murphy and the repercussions in the news. However, Walker’s name hasn’t left the headlines since the call. Obviously the public is unhappy with what the phone call revealed. As a journalist, I’m unhappy with how this information was discovered.

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