Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Journalistic ethics and outing Raelians

There are ethical questions too. But more firmly, a Quebec court finds that a reporter violated privacy of two Raelians, when she infiltrated the sect and later wrote about them in newspaper articles:

The court awarded $9,000 Cdn ($7,688 US) in damages to two Raelians who said they had suffered embarrassment and loss of revenue after being identified as senior figures close to sect leader Claude Vorilhon, who goes by the name Rael.

The case goes back to 2003 when Brigitte McCann, a reporter for the Journal de Montreal, spent nine months undercover as a member of the Raelians. Her articles won Quebec's top journalism prize and exposed a darker side to the sect, which claims 55,000 followers worldwide who believe in UFOs and that humans have been cloned.

So...should she have infiltrated Raelians? What kind of things were exposed:

McCann reported that Vorilhon believes he has been targeted for assassination by the CIA, demands generous contributions from followers and that his entourage includes "angels" prepared to die to protect him.

Ahmm...ok. This doesn't seem like a threat to its members or others. That leads to the question: why infilterate? Purely for a good story? But then is it okay to report information in a newspaper without the consent of those being reported - especially when the reporter did not disclose her true identity? Well, here is the reasoning from the Quebec court:

Quebec Court Judge Charles Grenier ruled that the newspaper was not justified in infiltrating the Raelians because information about the sect was publicly available. And he suggested that an undercover press investigation of the sect leads to a slippery slope.

"If the activities of a group or organization are legal and of a private nature, what can justify the use of so-called clandestine investigation methods in the name of the public right to information?" Judge Grenier asked. "The non-conformity of ideas and activities? Their bizarreness? Their occult character? General disapproval? And what else?"

The judge found that the publication of the plaintiffs' pictures and personal information infringed their right to privacy. Their identities were not made public.

A woman who is a member of Vorilhon's inner circle of "angels" said her practice as a psychologist suffered after she was publicly identified as a high-ranking Raelian, and was awarded $7,000 in damages.

This got me thinking, where are the public and private boundaries of other mainstream religions. For example, does it make any sense to say that someone infiltrated Catholicism or Islam. Or does this type of infiltration only make sense in small sects and religions? Then, what is "small"?? And more broadly, should one infiltrate (harmless) religious rituals to later report on them in a newspaper or to publish research? I would have to say "no" to the last question.

In any case, read the full article here.

1 comment:

sigob said...

I think it also gets confusing up in Canada due to the Freedom of Information and Privacy (FOIP) act. You can't just post information about people online. I am not sure how that intersects with mainline journalism, but it might throw a bit of a curveball.

All I really know is anything in schools or businesses must have release forms signed before any information about the person can be posted or used for distribution.