Sunday, October 07, 2018

Did journalist cross the line to gain access?

After finishing teaching a morning class last Thursday, I returned to my office around noon. I had an hour before meetings with students began for the rest of the afternoon, so I took a few minutes to catch up on email. Among them was an alert from Twitter.

"Curious to know @jseglin's ethics take on a journalist pretending to be a student to gain access to a subject in a classroom. #KavanaughHearings"

Because I'd been in class, I hadn't been watching the Senate hearings so I didn't know to what specifically the tweet was in reference, but it struck me as a pretty basic question, so I responded:

"If the journalist told someone he or she was a student to get into the classroom, that's wrong. If the journalist walked into the classroom to approach a subject, that's something else."

I stand by that observation. While good reporters should be tenacious about doing their jobs well in reporting newsworthy stories, they should not misrepresent themselves.

In a follow-up exchange with the tweeter, he clarified that his question arose from a comment Dr. Christine Blasey Ford made during her testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. He wanted to know whether it was ethically wrong for a journalist to pretend to be a student to gain access to Dr. Ford's classroom at Palo Alto University, where she teaches. If that had happened, it would have indeed been wrong.

The transcript of the hearings, however, don't indicate that Dr. Ford told the Senate hearing that a reporter misrepresented herself. What Dr. Ford said in a response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein asking why she ultimately decided to come forward was that "a reporter appeared in my graduate classroom and I mistook her for a student, and she came up to ask me a question, and I thought she was a student and it turned out that she was a reporter." After this incident, Dr. Ford "felt like enough was enough" and she decided to go public with her allegations of sexual assault toward U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.

A fair question might be about why it was so easy for a stranger to make her way into a classroom at a private university without being asked by anyone who she was and why she was there. If the reporter in Dr. Ford's classroom misrepresented herself to gain access to the classroom or if she snuck her way past security guards or well-posted no-trespassing signs to gain access to private property, she was wrong. (Palo Alto University is a private university.)

Dr. Ford, as a private citizen unused to the public spotlight, had every right to feel overwhelmed by those who were attempting to speak with her. When Dr. Ford discovered the person coming up to her after class was a reporter, she obviously could have stopped talking to her or asked her to leave. If she did, the reporter should have honored that request.

But the answer to the question tweeted at me is that the right thing was for the reporter not to break the law nor misrepresent herself to gain access. Dr. Ford's testimony doesn't indicate the reporter did either. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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