Fake Phone Calls: News or Not?

Many news organizations, I believe, are walking a fine ethical line by playing the recording of a prank phone call made to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by the founder of an alternative website.  It may be news that the phone call was placed and that someone in Walkers office even took the call and switched it to the governor, but what was said is not “real” and must be treated carefully.  Our credibility is on the line.

 Ian Murphy, the founder of the website the Buffalo Beast, placed the telephone call to Walker's office.  He lied to get through, claiming he was David Koch a wealthy Wisconsin businessman and acquaintance of Walker.  Murphy proceeded to ask Walker questions and make comments about the current crisis in the state.  Murphy used profanity, baited the Governor about liberal in the media and the democrats who have been hiding in Illinois to avoid doing their job.  It was a setup.  It was fiction.

 Within hours of the release of the audio from that fake phone call, the Society of Professional Journalists issued a warning to its members saying that any misrepresentation when gathering information is ethically wrong.   SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Z. Smith said, “To lie to a source about your identity and to bait that source into making comments that are inflammatory is inexcusable and has no place in journalism.” 

 The website, The Buffalo Beast, has not hidden its biased reporting in the past and what its' founder did was neither fair nor objective.  Smith of the SPJ also said, “Murphy should be ashamed not only of his actions but of besmirching our profession by acting so shamelessly.”

 Now, the question is, should other journalists use the information in that bogus phone call.  The SPJ cautions reporters, editors and producers that any story that uses the information obtained by this trickery should be carefully considered.  We should spend as much time explaining the deception and explaining that the potentially inflammatory comments were “baited” as we do playing the audio from this “fake” phone call.

 One journalist clearly used unethical tactics to create a headline, it is up to the rest of us to mitigate the damage and try to put the real story in context.   

Categories: Becker’s Digital Notebook