By Debbie Holtz | October 27th, 2008 - 3:09pm
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I thought the Star Ledger got the union concessions and staff buyouts it needed to avoid putting the paper up for sale. But after watching the Ledger Live’s first-ever “lie detector challenge,” I would have sworn the Ledger had been acquired by the Trentonian.

Have we reached the point where quotes given to a news reporter may be subject to a lie detector challenge?

The recent “he-was-trying-to-pacify-me-with-money” and “not-in-a million-years” exchange between senate leaders Alex DeCroce and Dick Codey  stoked the latest flare-up controversy over the Democrats’ $120 million give-away grant program.

The real issue in this round is whether the Ledger’s lie detector challenge is a stunt designed to make some news or is it an appropriate role for the Fourth Estate?

“News media have long sponsored debates and other such events, which you could say is ‘creating news,’ but it's in the public interest”, offered University of Louisiana Professor Robert Buckman who serves on the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Ethics Committee.

“I personally think that the Star-Ledger's neutral offer to sponsor a polygraph test is within the best tradition of the press' function as a ‘watchdog’ on public officials” added Buckman. “Much will depend on who will administer the test and if both sides would agree to it; I'll believe that when I see it.”

For another SPJ’s Ethics Committee member, the ethical issue raised by the lie detector challenge centers around whether the tests are reliable.

“I am not an expert on lie detector tests, but there are questions about the accuracy of tests,” added Mike Farrell, who also teaches media ethics and was a reporter, city editor and managing editor at the Kentucky Post. “Challenging the two officials to take a lie detector test when the scientific evidence is divided on whether the results are accurate would not further the injunction of the SPJ Code of Ethics to ‘seek truth and report it.’  If they both agree to take it, there seems to be little scientific agreement that the results would be conclusive.”

Farrell pointed to a 2002 Mother Jones article titled “Lie Detector Roulette” which tackled that very question: Studies have long shown that polygraphs are remarkably unreliable, particularly for screening job applicants. As early as 1965, a congressional committee concluded that there was no evidence to support the polygraph's validity; a 1997 survey in the Journal of Applied Psychology put the test's accuracy rate at only 61 percent. Polygraph evidence is generally inadmissible in court because, as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his majority opinion in the 1998 case U.S. v. Scheffer, "there is simply no consensus that polygraph evidence is reliable."

Both SPJ experts agreed the Ledger has an obligation to report on the scientific division over the test's reliability --- to do otherwise would be highly unethical and misleading.

Even with full disclosure, does the Ledger challenge cross the line between reporting the news and creating it?

“To answer this question, I think it is important to remember the roles of the news media,” added Farrell. “First, the news media exist as a watchdog on government. Without the watchful eyes of reporters, government secrecy would rise exponentially. This conflict proves that state government needed more, and not less, openness."

“A second role of the media is to inform the audience, to tell readers and listeners what is happening. As such, I don’t think the newspaper is creating news. How tax money is spent is of high concern and interest to taxpayers. Government should be 100 percent transparent about how priorities are set, how decisions are made, and how the money is spent. Not one inch of this process should be cloaked in secrecy.”

Farrell concluded: “The news is the charge of the bribe offer. Trying to determine who is telling the truth is not creating the news.”

I cannot tell a lie.

Given the mixed bag over the reliability of polygraph tests, I say the news media should leave the prosecutorial tactics to the prosecutors.

When asked if he believed this “Lie Detector Challenge” is an appropriate use for a newspaper's online web content, Farrell had this to say: “Given the division over the reliability of polygraph tests, I would say no.”

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