Smile! You’re on ‘Candid Camera’

We will pay, sooner or later, for our growing acceptance of hidden cameras and other deceptive practices in newsgathering. The latest target is the Christian counseling business owned by Michele Bachmann and her husband, Marcus Bachmann. Previous targets of such tactics have included Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio, ACORN and the Rev. Tom Brock.

The ethics grow murky when journalists misrepresent themselves to get a story. Sometimes it may be the only way, but at other times it’s just the easiest way. When is it justified – to expose hypocrisy? To report on a threat to health and safety? To get good film for Sweeps Week?

“If you talk to three different ethicists, you’ll get three different responses,” says Prof. Jane Kirtley, who teaches ethics at the University of Minnesota’s journalism school. There is no clear line, she said, but she articulated the danger well: If we tell readers that we lied to get a story, how can they trust that we’re telling the truth about everything else?

Lots of media organizations would turn away in a huff from a reporter who wanted to carry a hidden camera and a faked identity into a mental health clinic. So why is it better or more ethical to publish the work of an activist/freelancer who did the same thing? That’s becoming the pattern. ABC News didn’t send an investigative reporter to get this story — but used its “investigative correspondent” to present the story and supplemental material, after John Becker of Truth Wins Out did the dirty work.

In the Bachmann Clinic case, the bar is arguably lower because one of the owners is running for president. If the clinic is using “reparative therapy” to undo the sexual orientation of gay clients – and swimming against the tide of credible professional opinion – that’s news. It would probably be news even if Michele Bachmann were not running for president, because the clinic gets public funds.

But as Prof. Kirtley points out, now that everybody has a mass communications device in his pocket, mainstream media have little to trade on but their own credibility. We should be careful about giving it away.

In the meantime, let’s take a minute to enjoy the old days, when the mainstream media really knew how to use hidden cameras:

  • bench

    As someone once told me- character (and ethics) is what you do when no one is watching…

  • kennedy

    Using hidden cameras is a way to gather information that people would rather keep private. The fact that deceit was used to gather the information does taint the story, as do the political leanings of the source. It is up to the producer/editor to judge whether a story is fit for circulation. A questionable story should be introduced with qualifiers.

    Using dishonesty to get a story is a slippery slope. A public radio fund raiser recently lost his job because of hidden video that had been heavily edited.

  • Joanna

    That Candid Camera clip is priceless!

  • John O.

    //”But as Prof. Kirtley points out, now that everybody has a mass communications device in his pocket, mainstream media have little to trade on but their own credibility. We should be careful about giving it away.”

    Another way of looking at this, however, is to recognize that since the technology exists, anyone who is in public office or generally considered to be “in the public eye” has to be wise enough to know that anything they say and or do at any point in time can become instant internet fodder.

    I generally agree with Kennedy’s comment above. However, I think it is fair to say that Congresswoman Bachmann has a demonstrable track record of not letting facts get in the way. It’s always easy for the pols to dish the dirt, but when it comes to being on the receiving end, the tune tends to change.

  • lucy

    I know of people who have stopped attending support groups where annonymity was considered to be a priority so that members feel safe and their struggles won’t be reported in, say for example the News Ctu let alone be used against them in their recovery.

    Loose lips sink ships and have a tendency to boomerang.