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The Ethics of BBC sting on sex-for-grade

by CredibleNews


Is it ethical? Does it not constitute an invasion of the privacy of the lecturers? Is it proper to pose as someone else so that you can trap these lecturers? 

Commentators have raised these issues and more on various platforms concerning the trending BBC report. Some go so far as to assert without fear of contradiction that the story is unprofessional because they supposedly crossed ethical boundaries. We attempt a look at the matter. 

The BBC report is classic investigative journalism. I noted in my lectures to students of Advanced Reporting Techniques. 

•          Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities, according to the American Press Institute. 

•          Journalists find that people are generally willing to share information with them and have them tell their stories, mostly positive ones until …it involves investigative journalism.

•          Investigative journalism is reporting that uncovers and tells stories about which the persons involved would rather not have anyone know. 

•          Investigative journalism draws from seemingly tongue-in-cheek definitions of journalism such as “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” Lord Alfred Northcliffe, British publisher 1865-1922.  Or “When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.” Charles Anderson Dana, American journalist, 1819-1897

•          Principal news values for investigative reporting are the unusual and the hidden.

Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s Investigative Journalism Manual says investigative journalism involves all these:

1.         An original, proactive process that digs deeply into an issue or topic of public interest.

2.         Producing new information or putting public information together to create new insights.

3.         Multi-sourced, using more resources and demanding team-working and time.

4.         Revealing secrets or uncovering issues surrounded by silence.

5.         Looking beyond individuals at fault to the systems and processes that allow abuses to happen.

6.         Bearing witness and investigating ideas as well as facts and events.

7.         Providing nuanced context and explaining not only what, but why.

8.         Not always about bad news, and not necessarily requiring undercover techniques – though it often is, and sometimes does.

Wole Soyinka goes beyond uncovering secrets to define investigative journalism as “the vital force for the restoration of human dignity”. Investigative journalism brings out “unpopular ideas and inconvenient facts” about society. It reveals scandals and shames the individuals involved.  The Forum of African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) asserts, “Our work moves beyond a simplistic focus on corrupt individuals in favour of a more systematic and contextualized exposure of corruption.”

What is the ethics behind a sting?

It is clear from the definitions that investigative journalism is a vital positive force for society. One of the trending misrepresentations against the Nigerian media is the claim that the BBC report shows they have lost steam and have neglected investigative journalism. Untrue and unfair. Even on matters of sexual harassment, the Nigerian media have played their roles. An October 30, 2017 report in The Cable exposed the pimping of schoolgirls by security guards and teachers at Federal Government Girls College, Langtang, Plateau State. Old students of the school immediately set up a panel to investigate the matter, and the Federal Government followed afterwards.  The Cable also launched a campaign/hashtag BreakTheSilence# to tackle the scourge of sexual harassment in schools


Four ethical principles guide investigative journalism. They are 

1.         The Golden Mean of Aristotle

2.         The Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant

3.         John Stuart Mill’s Principle of Utility

4.         The Judeo-Christian principle of Fairness and Reciprocity or Do unto Others…

The Golden Mean

Aristotle’s The Golden Mean advocated a careful balance of attributes. Courage is one of the characteristics of journalism with the other extremes being bravado or recklessness and cowardice. It says that the journalist should tread courageously. The reporter should maintain a proper balance while pursuing a scoop. It is the principle of moderation in all things. 

Kant’s Categorical Imperative

The Kantian ethical code goes to the motive of actions as the basis of morality. Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. In all actions, everyone must strive for what is right and just and would yield positive outcomes. The motivation of the journalist should be the good of society, not a personal desired outcome. Kant posited that this pursuit of the common good is a practical moral reason and applies everywhere; hence the term moral universalism ascribed to the categorical imperative.

The three forms of the categorical imperative are 

a)         The Universal Law. Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

b)        Treat humans as ends in themselves. “Act so that you treat humanity, both in your person and in the person of every other human being, never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end”. 

c)         “Act as if you live in a kingdom of ends “.  Act as if you were through your maxim a law-making member of a kingdom of ends”.

For Kant, the basis of moral actions is the purpose of doing good. 

It means that the desire for doing good should be the motivation of investigative reporting.  Such a desire must be stronger than one to achieve personal objectives. Kiki Mordi was a victim of the acts she investigated. Could that be a barrier to an assessment of her action as Kantian? 

Principle of Utility

Utilitarianism is the ethical principle that emphasises that an act should lead to pleasure rather than pain and do so for the majority.  John Mill said it is “The creed which accepts as the foundations of morals ‘utility’ or the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness.”

In his formulation, an action’s moral value is in the results it produces. Utilitarianism provides a standard of right action.”

Journalism is utilitarian. It promotes the best interests of the society that it serves and does so using all its tools for information, education, entertainment, and holding people to account. 

Do unto Others as You Would Have Then Do unto You

Experts ascribe the principle of reciprocal action to the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Bible. The maxim, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is the Golden Rule.   As an African of the Igbo stock, I see the principle at play in our customs and aphorisms such as Egbe bere, Ugo bere translated as to let the kite and the eagle perch without each hindering the other. 

When journalism calls people to order, it is playing a moral duty. It is also a constitutional one. The injunction in Chapter Two, Section 22 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution requires that the media hold government and institutions accountable to the people.  

Authorities have suggested two critical questions for considering the ethics of a report, in particular, difficult ones such as Sex-for-grades

1.         Who will be hurt, and how many?

2.         Who will it help and how many?

Various ethical codes, including the Ilorin Declaration of Nigerian Journalists (1998), embrace the application of sound principles such as truth, accuracy, fairness, transparency, proper representation, attribution and the right of reply.  The code of the Society of Professional Journalists (Sigma Delta Chi) captures these concerns as 

1.         Seek truth and report it

2.         Minimise harm

3.         Act independently 

4.         Be accountable. 

Note that the injunction is to “minimise harm” and not to avoid it. The investigative reporter would then apply the utilitarian ethics of how many persons would suffer pain versus the beneficiaries from the good that the story would do. 

On that score, the story was ethical. 

Privacy? Privacy is a newer area of press law generally but even more so in Nigeria. It has arisen in the age of social media and society publications. The 1999 Constitution in Section 11, Chapter 4, sub-section 37 guarantees the privacy of individuals thus: “37. The privacy of citizens, their homes, correspondence, telephone conversations and telegraphic communications is hereby guaranteed and protected.”

Privacy actions cover four key areas

1.         Intrusion or invasion of privacy is an infringement on someone’s solitude or property, either physically or electronically

2.         Disclosure of embarrassing private facts, such as medical or sexual records or old indiscretions that are no longer relevant.

3.         Placing someone in a false light, making an individual appear (through a photo or docudrama technique, for example) to be something different from what is true.

4.         Misappropriation of likeness, using someone’s name or image for commercial advantage without permission.

Permission is the primary defence. Individuals waive their privacy claims if they formally invite journalists onto their property or sign consent forms. This did not happen in the BBC story. However, another defence is newsworthiness and relevance. It is a waiver for intrusion particularly where the person is involved in a matter of public interest such as the quality of university education, women’s rights and sexual harassment. 

Finally, is a sting proper? Yes, it is if it is for the greater good of the public. They were right to pose as prospective students. Traps work to catch the intended because they are gullible and guilty. 

© Chido Nwakanma

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