Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Secretly recording public officials is ethically risky for journalists

“Can I record this conversation?”

At The Daily Free Press, we’ve all uttered that line countless times in our journalistic careers. We slap ourselves over the head if we ever forget, knowing we’ve committed a mortal sin.

In Massachusetts, it’s long been a crime to secretly record a conversation. Journalists are required by law to ask for approval to record interviews and conversations among other individuals — even if those individuals are government officials, prominent political figures or cops.

The United States District Court District of Massachusetts ruled Monday that a law prohibiting secret recordings of government officials and members of the police force is unconstitutional. Secretly recording these officials in public places, when they are on duty, is now protected under the First Amendment.

Project Veritas, the organization behind one of the cases, is notorious for attempting to fool journalists with fake cases and falsifying sting operations meant to deface journalists. They’re presenting this law as a win for the First Amendment — Project Veritas Action Fund’s attorney Ben Barr said the win now allows undercover reporting to be as protected as ordinary reporting.

Project Veritas cannot act as though they are spearheading this campaign combating corruption and rallying behind journalists when their history says the opposite.

Massachusetts has previously been a two-party consent state when it’s come to recording — we need to know if this will inherently make us a one-party consent state, and furthermore, if this calls for shield laws protecting the right of journalists to refuse to testify as to where they got their information.

In some ways, it could be good that everyday people will have greater power to act as citizen journalists, potentially using recording to capture confidential information exposing public officials or allowing citizens to expose unjust practices within the police force. Journalists have the same rights and allowances as everyday citizens, so this law could be positive in exposing information that would never be said on the record otherwise.

But government officials are already often hesitant to confide in journalists. This will add a layer of fear that at any point in time they could be secretly recorded, making reporters’ jobs establishing relationships with sources more difficult.

And often, when journalists speak to cops, they provide information that’s off of the record. Now that cops cannot truly be sure whether anything they say is on the record or not, this could affect what information they are willing to provide journalists in situations when they would normally feel free to provide tips or off-record information.

With people questioning the credibility of journalists more than ever, and with this increased flexibility, it’s important that journalists maintain their own standards of ethics. We need to do a conscientious job to only use information we know is on the record — not just for our own credibility, but for the sake of respecting what we know is right.

Just because journalists have been given this increased flexibility in their reporting doesn’t mean they should take advantage of it, potentially exploiting the trust of their sources. The most important thing as a journalist is having that trust.

We have to worry about implications about how this would change relationship between public officials and journalists. It could be positive — it could help protect a journalists’ ability to snag information on the go without a formal interview and expose vital information to the public — but could make it so public officials are simply more hesitant to speak, even in a formal interview.

This could drive a wedge between reporters and public officials, who might no longer feel comfortable speaking freely to journalists, and that’s a risk we don’t want to take.  

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