When is under-cover journalism an invasion of privacy?

Every now and then, a journalist will feel guilty about having a proper salary, union-negotiated benefits, ergonomic chairs and all the other stuff that another class of people could only dream of. So, in a bid to absolve them of this guilt, sell a few newspapers and hopefully scrounge up an award or two, a reporter will be sent “under cover” to work in a minimum-wage job, live in the slums and otherwise experience life as a member of the lower classes.

La Presse’s Michèle Ouimet did that, and articles about her work in a minimum-wage job and living in a slum with prostitutes and drug addicts appeared this week. The names in her articles are changed “to preserve anonymity.”

That doesn’t always work, though. Back in 2006, Globe and Mail journalist Jan Wong did something similar, living in a slum and working as a maid at less than minimum wage. She described her daily life, and changed names so that nobody would be embarrassed (or decide to sue her).

Unfortunately, a couple described in the story had enough “private information” revealed that friends recognized them, and they say that caused them personal embarrassment. So rather than admit that they treat hired help like crap and there are parts of their lives that could use some improvement, they sued Wong and the Globe for invasion of privacy.

This week, an Ontario court ruled against a motion from the Globe to dismiss the case.

Ironically, the lawsuits (one from the couple, another from the maid service) names the parties in question, which now makes them Googlable where they were not before. I personally don’t see how this more public humiliation (they’re not challenging the accuracy of anything said about them) is worth a chance to take on a paper for $50,000.

On one hand, this kind of journalism wouldn’t be possible without some deception.

On the other hand, how would you feel if embarrassing information about you appeared in a newspaper, and everyone who knew you could recognize you from the details given?

Perhaps a simple answer to all this is that journalists should take better care at anonymizing information, especially when they’re setting a scene with lots of detail.

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