About News

If you’re a reporter, how sneaky are you willing to be? Here’s an exercise.

I’ve never seen “sneakiness” listed among the requirements for any reporter jobs but maybe it should be.

A reporter for the McCurtain (Oklahoma) Gazette-News ended up with a flabbergasting story when he secretly left a voice-activated audio recorder in a public meeting room after citizens were told to leave a session of the McCurtain County Commission. The reporter, believing county officials had a practice of continuing to discuss government business in violation of the state open meetings law, retrieved the recorder and discovered comments lamenting that Black criminals couldn’t be lynched anymore and talk of killing local reporters.

Since the paper’s first report on April 15, the local Black community has held public protests and one of the officials has resigned. The newspaper, whose story got national media attention, released the full three-hour audio last week.

Various recent media reports offer conflicting views of whether the reporter broke Oklahoma law about secret recordings. The key question seems to be whether, in that setting and with other people in the room, the people in the conversation had a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The reporter’s actions got me to thinking about other circumstances in which the reporting process may enter an ethical gray area. Journalists shouldn’t break the law, but that doesn’t mean they should engage in any and all conduct that’s legal.

Here are some scenarios of newsgathering – all from real-life situations that I’m familiar with – that require at least a moment’s pause and contemplation. I don’t think any of these are illegal. (Check your state’s laws anyway so I’m not responsible for you getting life in prison, OK?) That means there isn’t an obvious, consensus answer. Would you do any of these, if the story were important enough?


  • You see two newsmakers at the restaurant table next to yours. They’re talking loudly and you can hear everything they say about a newsworthy topic in which they are involved. Do you report what they say? (I say yes, but only after giving each individual a chance to elaborate, clarify or backpedal the next day.)


  • Similar scenario but this time it involves adjoining hotel rooms. (Don’t scoff. This really happened.) (I would treat this as off-the-record information and use it to try to leverage on-record confirmation from the newsmakers or others.)


  • A newsmaker is giving a speech at a meeting advertised as open to the public but not to the media. (Again, this really happened.) Do you remove your press badge, attend and report? (I’d have zero problem with that.)


  • Let’s make the previous scenario more complicated. The speech is open to a club that has 200 members but not to the media. With so many attendees, you know you could blend in and get inside. Would you do that and report? (I’m a “no” on this one.)


  • You need a phone interview with a central figure in a major controversy, but the bureaucracy (secretary, media relations person) is putting up blockades. Would you claim to be someone other than a journalist just to get past the call screeners? (That’s another “no” from me.)


  • You’re doing an interview with a newsmaker in their office. On their desk is a letter that you’re able to read and you can see from the subject line that it’s about a major story that you’ve been covering. Do you keep reading to see if it’s news you should get confirmed later? (I would advise not to read it.)


  • You anticipate a contentious interview with a key person in a high-profile news story in a state that doesn’t require all parties to a conversation to consent to being recorded. You doubt the person will grant permission, but you want the public to hear it for themselves. Do you secretly audio record the interview? (I would do so but not make it public unless the interviewee publicly challenged my accuracy.)


  • In response to a public records request, you get a document that is partially blacked out. But the redaction is poorly done and you can see what’s hidden or have the technology to defeat the redaction. Do you publish the hidden information? (Yes, in a heartbeat.)

As I said, the importance of the information in these situations is key. In McCurtain County, knowing that some of your government leaders are racist and fascist was well worth all the sneakiness involved.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.