Commentary: Media ethics and Gaby Rodriguez's pregnancy project

The Miami HeraldFebruary 20, 2012 

Gaby Rodriguez was a 17-year-old high school honor student in Yakima, Wash., when she hit upon an imaginative senior project on teen pregnancy. She would declare she was pregnant. In the months that followed, as she bulked up with a home-made prosthesis, she would log the reaction of friends, family and classmates to her condition.

Rodriguez got approval from her teacher and principal, even the schools superintendent. Only her mother, boyfriend and one or two intimates were in on the ruse. In April, after six and a half months, she came clean during a school assembly, where she passed out index cards on which she had recorded remarks she had overheard and had students read them aloud.

Then she pulled the pregnancy bump from beneath her pullover. “I’m fighting against those stereotypes and rumors,” she said, “because the reality is I’m not pregnant.” She was warmly applauded by her fellow students, and lavishly praised by her teachers.

After the local paper, the Yakima Herald-Republic, broke the story, it became a minor sensation, and was widely reported here and abroad. Rodriguez did celebrity turns on ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today Show. She’s writing a book. By the time she formally presented the results of her experiment in May, she was no longer speaking to reporters, on instructions of her literary agent. A Lifetime Channel movie, The Pregnancy Project, starring Alexa Vega as Rodriguez, debuted last month.

I had missed this affair until I got an e-mail from a former colleague, Harris Meyer, an award-winning journalist and ex-city editor at the Yakima paper. Meyer was alarmed by the generally uncritical way in which the media had embraced Rodriguez’s project which, he noted, rested on a sweeping deception. It was “a case of unethical human experimentation,” he wrote, “ill-conceived and potentially dangerous.”

The media did swoon. “I admire her so much,” her principal said on Good Morning America. “Her courage, her creativity, her strength.” The segment ended: “Gaby plans to present her findings to community leaders to help young women fight stereotypes and find the same quality she discovered along the way—courage.”

Precisely what “stereotypes” she was battling aren’t clear. The comments she related expressed little more than the dismay and disappointment you’d expect from the friends of a talented student who’d done something very foolish.

Meanwhile, six of her seven siblings were left believing her pregnancy was real, as did her hapless boyfriend’s parents, who thought he was the father, his five brothers and sisters and everybody but Rodriguez’s best friend. All were part of what the Yakima paper called “a social experiment.”

Now, there has indeed been distinguished experimentation that relied on deception. A famous instance was Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiment that tested obedience to authority. Students recruited to help run a “scientific study of memory” administered what they believed were electrical shocks to unseen people in another room who flubbed exam questions.

But the students had been deceived: they weren’t helpers, they were the test subjects, and the memory study was a sham. The real experiment was designed to see just how much pain they would inflict if ordered, whatever the screams next door.

Unquestionably, the test subjects were tricked, and couldn’t give the informed consent that ethical research normally requires. But Milgram’s extraordinary study would have been impossible otherwise, and we’d all be the poorer without his chilly findings about compliance with evil authority.

If inquiries involve deceit, it’s reasonable to demand that they be worth it. As lawyer and ethicist Jack Marshall wrote on his Ethics Alarm website: “Such dishonest exercises involving the intentional deception of hundreds of people carry a heavy burden of justification.”

If a reporter dissembles to infiltrate a nefarious place, it should be to illuminate important realities that can’t be accessed otherwise. Gaby Rodriguez did nothing more than hoodwink her peers into conduct she could upbraid them for later. It’s hard to imagine what she found she couldn’t have learned by spending time with teens who were truly pregnant.

To her credit, Rodriguez herself said on NBC’s Today show: “I felt guilty through the whole process just because I was lying to everybody.” But her elders almost uniformly ignored her misgivings. As Matt Lauer concluded breezily, “She set the bar pretty high here . . .” Don’t be surprised to see him fawning over the enterprising senior who feigns a crippling injury and wheels himself to school claiming to be paraplegic, all to “test” public reaction to disabilities.

The new media world we increasingly inhabit offers more opportunity than ever to fabricate realities, to adopt online handles and deceptive pseudonyms, sometimes for what seems good cause. But there are reasons why basic morality deplores deceit. And it’s a pity that none of the grownups in Gaby Rodriguez’s case saw fit to explore in a serious and thoughtful way how honesty and trustworthiness should figure in the education of this extraordinary young woman.

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