Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Is HP's spying campaign just investigative reporting by other means?

DealBreaker took me to task for a post last week which suggested that journalists and Hewlett Packard's board were after the same things -- damaging dirt -- but they simply use different means.

A New York Post reporter sent me the following e-mail in response:

read your article on the WSJ reporter's reflection on her connection to this whole HP mess.

Investigative reporting is legal. To be fair, i am one, but still. Its done in the daylight, using open or at least notionally public sources, with little effort made to conceal footprints. The source of the story almost always has full knowledge of the investigation and is given a chance to respond in detail in advance of publication. There is careful legal and editorial vetting of the process; the reporter would get fired for breaking rules of the paper, let alone the law.

example: if a reporter on a "project"--news speak for investigative reporting--told an editor that he spent the day trailing the target of a story's husband around all day, or nicked some trash, he'd have spent his last day on the job.

on the other hand, HP spent 6 figures to go through a woman's trash, illegally obtain and monitor her phone use, and trail her husband around. this was done at the order of the chairwoman of the board.

Here was my reply:

was not trying to diminish the illegality and immorality of what HP did. I just noticed that both HP and the reporter were digging for telling details using different methods.

I was also trying to make an uncomfortable point – investigative reporters and spies are both after the same thing – damning details -- they just use different methods. And reporters probably think that their methods are perfectly ethical whereas I think that their methods can sometimes be kind of sneaky – particularly when they’re trying to dig up dirt on someone.

Are there examples of reporters who might have done something sneaky -- even if they believed they were acting for the public good?

I was thinking that the use of anonymous sources is not on the very highest ethical plane. There are many reasons why a source would want anonymity. But in some cases, a source is commenting off the record because to do so on the record would result in the person losing his job – in effect the reporter is an accomplice to the employee violating corporate policy.

But the employee and the reporter are engaged in a mutually beneficial transaction – the employee may be blowing the whistle on a corporate policy which he believes is wrong and the reporter is getting a good story and possibly helping to right what the reporter perceives as a wrong.

Both believe that the ends justify the means. The employee knows he is violating company policy by sharing corporate secrets with the reporter but he also wants to keep his job so he agrees to talk only off the record. And the reporter knows that he is an accomplice to the source’s violation of corporate policy but the reporter’s boss allows him to do this because it’s accepted policy within the journalism field.

But in so doing, the quality of reporting may be compromised. A reader doesn’t know how much credence to give to information provided by an anonymous source. How can a reader judge the reporter’s judgment about what is reality and what is spin?

The HP case involved a CNET reporter getting information from an anonymous source who turned out to be an HP board member. If the reader had known that the source was that particular board member, then it would have been easier to judge the accuracy of the information provided. But in the process, the reporter was an accessory to the board member violating corporate policy against revealing confidential information. The board member may have even violated SEC disclosure laws in the process.

My conclusion is that reporters’ hands are not completely clean when they use anonymous sources. But they’re a lot cleaner than HP’s hands after using the tactics that Tam described.


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