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SPJ: Remember ethics in wake of fake phone call with Wisconsin governor


For Immediate Release:

Hagit Limor, SPJ President, (513) 852-4012,
Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Director (317) 927-8000, ext. 211

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists, through its Ethics Committee, strongly condemns the actions of an alternative online outlet this week when an editor lied and posed as a financial backer in a recorded phone call with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Ian Murphy, editor of the Buffalo Beast, represented himself as billionaire businessman and conservative activist David Koch, a financial supporter of Gov. Scott Walker, so that he could gain access to the governor by phone. He spoke with the governor under these false pretenses. Read a full account from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

During the phone call, Murphy, as Koch, baited the governor with questions about liberals in the media and the Democrats who have vacated the statehouse to prevent a vote on a collective bargaining bill. Near the end of the call, Murphy tells the governor that once Walker crushes the unions and their Democratic base, he (as the pretend Koch) will fly Walker to California and “really show you a good time.”

Walker responded: “All right. That would be outstanding.”

“This tactic and the deception used to gain this information violate the highest levels of journalism ethics,” said SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Z. Smith. “To lie to a source about your identity and then to bait that source into making comments that are inflammatory is inexcusable and has no place in journalism.”

The Buffalo Beast website was down as of Wednesday afternoon.

Though the Buffalo Beast purports to be an alternative news site with heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective, the fact remains that this interview was underhanded and unethical. Credible news organizations should be cautious about how they report this already widely reported story, and must realize that the information was obtained in a grossly inappropriate manner according to longstanding tenets of journalism.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics clearly states that journalists should “be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting news.”

The Code also says to avoid “undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

SPJ President Hagit Limor said what happened represents “a new low” for anyone claiming to be a journalist. “This may be how Hollywood portrays reporters, but no journalist worth his salt ever would misrepresent his name and affiliation when seeking an interview. Murphy should be ashamed not only of his actions but of besmirching our profession by acting so shamelessly.”

Journalists and news organizations should take note to carefully explain how this information was obtained and take measures not to engage in similar unethical practices.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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