Does it matter that Greenpeace journalists lied in order to expose academics-for-hire?

A Greenpeace undercover investigation revealed that academics agreed to receive payments from fossil fuel companies – without disclosing the funding. Aly Song/Reuters

Earlier this fall, Greenpeace announced it was hiring a team of journalists and making investigations a pillar of its advocacy work.

Now the public is beginning to see the fruits of that investment, as well as some of the questions that get raised when advocacy groups utilize some of journalism’s more controversial reporting tactics.

Last week, the group published a report showing how two American academics agreed to write papers in support of – and covertly funded by – the fossil fuel industry.

To get the story, Greenpeace’s journalists posed as energy company representatives and offered to pay the academics – who were both prominent climate change skeptics – to write about the benefits of coal use and carbon emissions. They also asked that the payments not be disclosed. The academics agreed. (You can read the email exchanges here and here.)

In many ways, Greenpeace’s reporting nicely approximates journalistic ideals of watchdog reporting. It builds on previous work by advocacy groups and news organizations that has revealed the hidden ties between the industry and climate change skeptics. Where others have focused on the role of corporations in funding the work of climate skeptics, this report highlights the willingness of academics to lend their scientific credibility to support the aims of industry.

This reporting also represents a new direction for Greenpeace. Long known for its savvy staging of media events, the group’s journalistic efforts signal a desire to provide the public with credible information about an important issue. These efforts dovetail with similar work being done by human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. On all of these grounds, the report is a positive flashpoint in the increasing role advocacy groups are playing in the provision of news.

At the same time, Greenpeace’s embrace of deceptive reporting practices raises longstanding questions about the acceptability of such tactics. These questions take on special importance in the climate change debate, which has seen efforts to discredit scientific experts by revealing their private communications.

Earlier this month, Representative Lamar Smith – chair of the House Science Committee and a climate change skeptic – subpoenaed the emails of scientists who have published research that Smith disagrees with.

Deceptive reporting is sometimes justified, and some of the best American journalism in the past century is the product of deceptive tactics. Nelly Bly’s 1887 exposé of conditions inside psychiatric wards required undercover techniques, as did the Washington Post’s 2007 reporting about the poor treatment of patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The question, then, is not whether such deceptive reporting is permissible, but when.

Typically, arguments in favor of deceptive reporting center on the disparity between the small deceits required of reporters and the larger deceptions they reveal. Industry funds academics, but the very nature of the collaboration makes it difficult to evaluate its scale and scope. On this view, Greenpeace’s reporters broke the normal rules of reporting by lying about their identity in order to disclose the secret ways that the climate skeptics are funded.

A related rationale is necessity: There needs to be no alternative method of reporting that can succeed in exposing the issue.

In Greenpeace’s recent investigative reporting, it’s not clear if this is true. Previous reporting, some of which Greenpeace has been involved in, suggests that more patient, detailed analyses can shed light on the same issues – without engaging in deception.

Just this year, for example, InsideClimate News relied on leaks, lawsuits and freedom of information requests to carefully document when ExxonMobil knew about global warming (and what it did to prevent public action on the matter).

To be sure, Greenpeace is an organization with multiple demands and aims. Such detailed reporting may not have been possible at the moment, especially given the climate talks in Paris that served as an effective news peg for the story. But it’s difficult for the public to know why it chose to go undercover, given the group’s silence on its choice of reporting tactic.

This is unfortunate, because Greenpeace’s credibility is at stake when it engages in deceptive reporting. Public confidence in the news media is low, in part because of the use of such tactics (and the broader culture of scandal reporting they create). Is this really a set of practices that advocacy groups want to replicate?

The question begets no single answer. As advocacy groups increasingly assume the role of journalists, questions like these are bound to arise. As they do, it will be important to ask not only about the quality of the information that such groups provide but also to investigate the methods they use to gather it.

Greenpeace rightly stands for openness in the climate change debate. As they embark on their journey in journalism, perhaps they ought to also stand for openness in their own reporting practices.