Pretexting vs. Legitimate Investigative Journalism Techniques

15th September 200610:25 am

September 15, 2006

Several people have emailed with a variation on the same question: when reporters disguise their identity to get a story, aren’t they “pretexting?”

The answer is no. At least, not as the term has been used to describe what the investigators working for H-P did.

It is not currently illegal to disguise one’s identity to get information that is available to the public but which might not be available to the investigator. Journalists do that all the time. It IS illegal, however, to pose as another REAL PERSON to get information that belongs to them or a company they do business with. That is the critical distinction. In fact, new laws to “ban pretexting” could pose a danger to our free press by criminalizing investigative techniques that are very legitimate, including the types of undercover investigations that often bring wrong-doing to light. Legislators should tread very carefully when enacting new laws that are not needed and which could do damage down the line as they are widened through judicial interpretation.

Instead, I agree with a Mercury News columnist who suggested the press stop using the word “pretexting,” which is designed to mislead, and replace it with the word “lying.” After all, we don’t let other law breakers use words of their choice to camouflage their actions. If we did, we’d have to enact a new law every time a crook came up with a new word for stealing stuff. They could rob a bank and call it “cash transferring” or “property relocation,” or my favorite, “stuff-lifting.”

Quick, let’s rush to the legislature to enact a new law against “stuff-lifting” before someone lifts our stuff! It’s legal, you know, because there is no law specifically against “stuff-lifting.”

“Yeah,” as the old Jon Lovitz character on Saturday Night Live might say, “That’s the ticket.”

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