Going Undercover for Drugs

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

An Arizona community newspaper staff is considering sending a reporter/photographer team out with a few $20 bills to do a story on how easy it is to buy drugs, but fear they might be arrested if they do that.

What are the legal and ethical implications? A staff writer asked in an email to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

AdviceLine does not answer legal questions, but from an ethical perspective, said an AdviceLine adviser, the marginal issue is that the reporter would be acting as a buyer and misrepresenting himself.

If they went ahead with the plan to buy drugs, the staff writer added, would they be compelled to report it to the police? The adviser answered that they would have been a witness to a crime, and “it seems to me they would be obligated to do so.”

The assignment sounds more like police work than journalism, said the adviser, and “while I applaud the motive and the courage of the reporter, have you looked at other ways to accomplish the same thing?”

One possibility would be to cooperate with police, instead of embarrassing them, which an article about an undercover journalist might do.

Also, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics discourages undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information “unless traditionally open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

The AdviceLine adviser summarized his views by saying: “First, the project is dangerous. Second, it should be left to the police. And third, as an alternative, contact the police and ask if a reporter might accompany an officer who might carry out the ‘bust’…”

The writer said he had not thought about working with police in that way.

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