Global Ethics Corner: Daisey and Foxconn: Is Exaggeration Acceptable When Raising Awareness?

Apr 5, 2012

Mike Daisey has admitted to fabricating parts of his story on Foxconn for "This American Life." But, perhaps partly due to the attention his story received, the Chinese factory is undergoing a labor audit and plans to raise wages. Is it ever ethical to lie for a larger truth?

In March, the popular weekly public radio show This American Life retracted its most downloaded episode. The episode, titled "Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory," was adapted from Daisey's one-man show called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."

A Shanghai-based journalist for another public radio show discovered that Daisey had fabricated key details about working conditions at a Chinese factory that manufactures iPads and iPhones for Apple, the highly profitable American computer and software company.

Daisey had described meeting and speaking with workers at Apple-supplier Foxconn's plant in Shenzhen, China.

Some of these workers, he claimed, were as young as 12 and 13 years old.

Daisey described meeting other Foxconn workers with severe disabilities resulting from exposure to dust and chemicals at the plant.

Many of his claims proved to be false, or composites of several different anecdotes Daisey had heard, rather than witnessed. The host of This American Life, Ira Glass, devoted an entire program to a retraction and apology.

Critics say that not only did Daisey lie, the news about his fabrications distract from the poor conditions that do exist at the Chinese factory. They point to more responsible reporting like that of Charles Duhigg in The New York Times as a counterexample of shedding light on poor labor conditions in China.

Daisey, however, stands by his piece. While he admits it is not technically accurate, and has apologized for the exaggerations, he says the episode shed needed light on poor working conditions in Chinese factories that contract with and supply American companies.

Indeed, Foxconn has recently undergone a labor audit and says it plans to raise wages and change its policies on overtime.

What do you think? Is what Mike Daisey did ethical? Should he have clearly labeled his one-man show as fiction? Is it ever okay to lie in service of a larger truth?

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:
Morten Wulff
Lee LeFever
M.I.C Gadget
Aaron Webb [also for picture 8]
Stephanie Asher
Alexander Torrenegra
Don Cochrane
Marc Phu
Steve Jurvetson

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