78% say illegal methods never appropriate for reporters

August 08, 2011, 4:33 PM GMT+0

The phone hacking scandal which began at the British tabloid News of the World and made headlines in early July continues to embroil Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation. While an earlier Economist/YouGov survey showed that Americans judged illegally accessing voice-mails a common practice among journalists, a new YouGov survey reveals that Americans are strongly against such illegal practices in journalism, although they consider fabricating news stories a worse offense.

When given a list of situations and asked in which of them using illegal methods to gather information for a story is justified, a majority (62%) of respondents said that using illegal methods was justified in none of the situations that we had given in our list. Some respondents did say that using illegal methods may be justified in certain circumstances:

  • 28% of respondents said they were justified when investigating government misconduct
  • 20% said they were justified for reporting on a humanitarian crisis
  • 15% said they were justified for reporting on a war

When asked whether certain illegal or deceitful means of getting information might be acceptable for journalists developing a story, an overwhelming majority of respondents (78%) said none of the activities that we had listed were acceptable. Among the options that we gave, the one that gathered the most support was assuming a false identity to gain information. It was deemed justifiable by 15% of respondents. Clearly, however, it was still seen as unacceptable by the vast majority.

Other actions, which included bribing private citizens or officials, illegally entering buildings, or stealing documents, were only seen as acceptable by between 4% and 7% of respondents. A tiny 2% of our respondents said hacking cell-phones or computers was OK.

Respondents also thought it was mostly unacceptable to publish a story with information that had been gained illegally. 47% of respondents said reporters should not be allowed to publish stories written using illegally obtained information, while a further 19% said they should "probably" not be allowed to publish such stories.

Our respondents reacted in a similar way when given a related but more complicated situation: “If a reporter won a Pulitzer Prize for a story for which he or she used illegal methods to gain information, should the Pulitzer Prize should be rescinded?” 48% said the prize should certainly be rescinded while another 23% said it "probably" should be.

While condemnation for journalists employing illegal practices to gain information was overwhelming, respondents still thought that fabricating information for a story was a more severe transgression. When asked which of two was worse:

  • 68% said fabricating information
  • 25% said using illegal measures to gain information

Image Source: Press Association