Global Ethics Corner: Are Secret Recordings Ethical?

June 10, 2013

Aided by cellphones doubling as digital recording devices, political activists and campaign operatives are in a bipartisan race to produce "gotcha" moments. Once made public, these recordings often go viral and can effectively derail opponents.

For example, a liberal activist recently admitted to placing a bug in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office and recording a conversation between the Republican and his campaign staff.

In 2010, conservative activist James O'Keefe was caught tampering with the telephones at Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s Louisiana office. He pleaded guilty to entering the property under false pretenses. O'Keefe had previously gained notoriety for his hidden camera "sting" operations against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN.

Mitt Romney's infamous claim that 47 percent of Americans are too dependent on government was secretly recorded by a bartender at a private event in 2012 and may have permanently set back Romney’s bid to unseat President Barack Obama.

Each recording made headlines when it was leaked to the media. Secret recordings, though, are an ethical grey area for journalists. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics advises reporters to "avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." Nevertheless, the traditional media has largely played along, reporting on these stories and the controversies they generate despite the tactics employed.

What do you think? Is it ethical to make secret recordings of a political opponent? If public officials think they’re speaking off the record, do they have a right to privacy?

Should the media run stories generated by hidden cameras and bugs? Is the public value of these recordings too important to ignore?

Does the upsurge in secret recording for political purposes pose a larger threat for the democratic system?

For more information see:

Curtis Morrison, "Why I secretly recorded Mitch McConnell," Salon, May 31, 2013

Ramon Antonio-Vargas, "James O'Keefe and friends plead guilty in Mary Landrieu office caper," The Times-Picayune, May 26, 2010

Andrew Siddons and Gerry Mullany, "The Man Behind the ‘47 Percent’ Video Comes Forward," The New York Times, March 13, 2013

SPJ Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists

Photo credits in order of appearance:
Hossam el-Hamalawy
Derek Steen
Gage Skidmore
Karl Heubaum
Talk Radio News Service
Robert Batina
Ben Alman
WCN 24/7 [also for picture 12]
Sean Bernard
Scorpions and Centaurs
Muff McElfresh
Adan Sanchez de Pedro
Matt Blaze

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