Public Editor

Reporter posing as part of wedding party?

I get a lot of story ideas suggesting that The Star investigate what look like scams in waiting. I know readers enjoy this kind of coverage, and it does provide an important public service. The press’ watchdog role is one of its most important, and that should extend to commerce as well as the government.

An emailer today had one such recommendation:

I went to a wedding show. Signed up for give-aways. Got a call today – celebrity china and cookware, free glasses and free 3-day/two night hotel. Looked online. Found a ton of scam reviews. I’ve got an appointment for this coming Wednesday night — if a reporter wants to pretend to be a part of my wedding party.

I understand why she’s wary of the offer, and it may well be deceptive. But it would be problematic to try to cover the story by the method she suggests.

The Star’s code of ethics states:

Deception is a form of lying and is to be avoided in newsgathering.

Further, and more to the point:

In rare and justifiable circumstances, however, deception may be used when it is the only way to report an important story of vital public interest. However, in all cases, deception may be used only with the advance approval of a managing editor.

Identifying yourself but not immediately revealing you are a reporter is acceptable only in extremely unusual circumstances. In these cases, you must ultimately reveal you are an editorial employee for The Star. Advance approval of a managing editor is required, unless physically impossible. If asked, under all circumstances, you must identify yourself as an editorial employee of The Star.

The question here, then, is whether finding getting to the bottom of what smells like a fishy come-on qualifies as a “vital public interest.” I’m not an assigning editor, but I think this one would be a hard case to justify on those terms.