Good old fashion reporting or lie detectors?

“What’s wrong with good old investigative reporting? Better to dig out the facts than rely on an unreliable machine.”

That’s the view of Paul LaRocque, a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Ethics Committee, who weighed in on the “first ever lie detector challenge” issued by the Star Ledger.

Although the challenge landed the Ledger in PolitickerNJ’s “Winners of the Week” spotlight, and 79% of those participating in our readers poll thought Senate President Dick Codey should hook himself up to a lie detector machine, experts in the industry saw it differently.

Although LaRocque saw nothing wrong with the media having a hand in making the news, he added: ”Lie detectors are not reliable. Any sensible candidate should refuse to take the test.”

Another SPJ member who thought it was a bit naïve to think news organizations don’t regularly make news by sponsoring events and publishing editorials focused on whether the challenge is appropriate in the online news business.

”We’re talking about an online version of reporting,” said Casey Bukro, who is a former editor at the Chicago Tribune. “I did that for a while at the Tribune and got the impression that news organizations want them to develop their own styles of reporting, which is still in the process of being developed. Not necessarily traditional journalism, not necessarily what you would see in the print version. Looks like this lie detector challenge is an effort in that direction.”

”Some folks call online reporting a rebirth of journalism…It’s an unusual approach, but it still has to stand up to the values expressed in the code — truth, balance and fairness.” Bukro added.

SPJ’s Peter Sussman, an independent journalist and author, thought the challenge raised “serious ethical concerns”.

“Lie detectors are known to be unreliable and variable in results, depending on who administers them and how the questions are phrased,” said Sussman. “If I’m not mistaken, they are not allowed for evidentiary purposes in any American courts…So what possible rationale is there for a news organization to demand that politicians take a test that’s known to be unreliable?

”I am also concerned about the false impressions the organizations would be propagating both about lie detectors’ validity and about any candidate who refused to take such a test. If they want to play arbiter, let them demand that the politicians provide whatever evidence they have; then seek comment from the other on whatever evidence is produced.”

”As laid out here, the news organization is just playing games for public effect … and misleading the public in the process,” added Sussman.

My thanks to Andy Schotz who chairs SPJ’s Ethics Committee and solicited input by the full committee which, he pointed out, had a range of views on the topic.

From Schotz’s perspective, “The first word that popped into my head was the word you used: stunt. Although some might argue that this is strictly part of the pursuit of truth, I disagree. It’s widely known that lie detection tests are unreliable and inadmissible in court. So, what is gained?”

”Also, the practical effect of this challenge is that it creates news on its own,” noted Schotz who covered the Maryland State House for The Herald-Mail. “I thought the Star Ledger story…did a decent job of looking into the dispute, which is larger than this latest he said/he said. Reporting should lead the way.”

”This is great for getting attention, but does little to get closer to the truth,” he noted. “To me, it’s no better than putting the group before a TV judge and jury – fun, but not part of the mission of a news organization.”

Debbie Holtz, PolitickerNJ.com’s political media columnist, studies and teaches public policy and writing at Rutgers University.

Good old fashion reporting or lie detectors?