Where does investigation end and entrapment begin?

One of my worries in undertaking an investigation has been the fear of getting it wrong – during my brief experience as a journalist I have learned that accuracy and evidence are paramount to every story.

It is simply too costly to get it wrong.

Another worry is the method through which evidence is gathered. Can questionable means of obtaining vital information be justified if the public has a right to know? Where does investigation end and entrapment begin? How does one define the public interest? I don’t expect to ever have answers to these questions though I hope to have a better idea about where I stand once I have finished my Masters in Investigative Journalism, which starts today.

News of the World

A NOTW exclusive that - it could be argued - ignores journalism's strict code of conduct. Are stories like this ethical?

The phone-hacking scandal involving the News of the World has shown that not all journalists abide by a strict code of conduct but rather go all out by any means necessary to get their story. Currently, I’m confused as to whether such unethical practices are confined to some parts of the tabloid press, widespread throughout the industry, or whether there are only a few who decide to operate in such ways.

Yesterday I found a handout attached to my notice board I had written for prospective reporters while I was News Editor at my student paper, Redbrick. At the bottom of the page I had written in large, bold font: ‘REMEMBER: as the News section we are looking to report factual information whilst remaining impartial, accurate, informative and, most important of all, INTERESTING!’

Looking back now, I still agree with much of what I wrote in the handout (perhaps with the exception of remaining impartial, as I have since learned this is impossible). I also believe the investigations we led at Redbrick were conducted in a proper and transparent manner, with proper consideration to legal issues thanks to the Guild of Students’ lawyers. 

Today I begin to learn how to do this myself.


About The Chancer
Tom is the former news and sport editor of Redbrick and also worked as the sport editor for The National Student. He has done work experience at local papers across the country and is currently studying the Newspaper Journalism MA at City University. He also co-writes the sport blog www.popeandswift.co.uk with The Student.

3 Responses to Where does investigation end and entrapment begin?

  1. The Intern says:

    I wonder if there is a public interest discussion around breaking the law to find evidence to support a story. Whilst it is clearly wrong to be dipping in and out of the Royal’s voicemails to see if you happen across a story, what if you were looking into government corruption in arms sales or missing aid money?

    Would it be ‘alright’ for a journalist to access information they don’t have permission for in this instance, can public interest ever be a defense of obtaining information by dubious or illegal means?

    I am sure this is an area of a million shades of grey, but surely sometimes we have to push the boundaries to make sure we are keeping people in check and ensuring that information that should be, is in the public domain.

    I would be really interested to know what other people think.

  2. Samuel Lear says:

    The matter of ‘public interest’ is an important one, as it is more apparent that the boundary between the ‘public interest’ and ‘of interest to the public’ is becoming more blurred. The law in the United Kingdom only exacerbates the ambiguities, although from the case studies I have studied, it seems that the public interest is a valid defence when the general welfare of the population is at stake, or acts as a prevention to a future crime. Ashley Cole’s alleged infidelity is an example of this blur – for me, it is not a matter of public interest, but of ‘interest to [some members of] the public’, although an alternative argument might be that Cole’s public portrayal of a healthy family life is hypocritical, and should thus be exposed as a matter of public interest.

    As far as The Intern’s post goes – the law is supreme. As tempting as it might be for a journalist to break the law (even inadvertently) to discover a story, it is still breaking the laws that have been enacted by Parliament as a means of codifying our behaviour in pursuit of improving our society. The law (or the interpretation of the law) is sometimes inadequate, and it is up to journalists (not confined to) to campaign for an adjustment to these laws that prevent the truth of government practice from being transparent.

  3. Pingback: Farewell the detective – big city life finds him out « Wannabe Hacks

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