I’m posting my reaction to Ian Durham’s weblog entry from October 28, 2004. Ian is an intern at WKBN-TV and it's important for you to read his entry as a framing document for my reaction. So click here to read his entry and then come back to read my response.
My Response to the "I'm Working Undercover..." Weblog Entry
When I read Ian's blog entry, he seemed proud and excited. I don’t want to diminish his experience, but I want him to grow from it and for all my students to understand clearly this is a lesson in journalism ethics you can never get from a classroom or from a text. Ian has first hand experience with these issues and I hope he and his fellow students can learn from it.
When I read his blog I was alarmed. I didn’t sense any ethical worries or any moral concerns raised in the entry. I must stress I never saw the story so I am assessing the events based on the blog entry. I do not blame him as he’s young and impressionable and was eager to please his mentors at WKBN. However, I find it disturbing that these mentors failed to inform him of the ethical quicksand they were stepping into and so I offer my ranting and raving for your consideration.
I think this young intern was sold on the sex appeal of this undercover expose. I think he was told that this story would blow the lid off of the Republican campaign and the only way to reveal this injustice was through hidden camera and microphone strategies. However, the ends here do not justify the means.
Bob Steel rallies against sloppy, unethical reporting and stresses we should never rush to use hidden cameras without applying a threshold test. In this case at WKBN, the ends never even came close to justifying the means. Steel, a veteran broadcast journalist who now directs the journalism ethics program at the Poynter Institute, responds to hidden camera and microphone tactics by taking a stand that they should be used a tool of last resort. The ethical use of the hidden cameras comes only when there is no other way to get the story and it is of utmost importance to the public.
“To justify deception we must be pursuing exceptionally important information. It must be of vital public interest, such as preventing profound harm to individuals or revealing great system failure.” Bob Steele, Hidden Cameras/Hidden Microphones: At the Crossroads of Journalism, Ethics and Law," a 1998 publication from the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) from The Poynter Institute’s Online Resources.
I wonder if all possibilities were exhausted before Ian was recruited to go undercover. And was this story so important that lies and misrepresentation and invading privacy justified the story WKBN uncovered? Did the producer or the newsroom management even bother discussing these issues with my student?
BEWARE GOTCHA JOURNALISM! BEWARE HIDDEN CAMERAS/MICS!
From where I stand Ian was used as a pawn in ethically bankrupt journalism.
Were there any other ways-- HONEST WAYS-- to get this story-- if there was a story?
Remember, concealment is a form of lying. Sending someone into a story to misrepresent himself while wired with a hidden microphone (thus violating what the unsuspecting parties assume is a private converstatin) is unethical.
How hard would it be to walk in and identify yourself and be forthright? Could you get the story by asking the Republican organizers to show/provide examples of Democrats getting tickets to the Bush visit? How hard would it have been to do a consenting, legitimate, one to one interview about the allegations?
Did the means justify the ends? Did the station prove anything from the tactics it used?
It looks like the station didn't prove anything. In the end I think the station loses credibility for taking the cheap and dirty approach to this story. It was an attempt at sensationalism and gotcha journalism. They wanted to catch the Republicans red-handed and they didn’t.
If they cannot produce any verifiable examples or contacts then do you have the beginnings of a story? I don’t think so. I wonder "WHO CARES" anyway.
Do we really think the people watching TV news are so stupid that they can't figure out these appearances are filled with Republican "plants" and supporters. There's no big secret in that.
Was it fair and balanced?
Why is the so called tipster who made the allegation not going on air? It's put up or shut up time? There's a severe credibility issue here. What are this person’s motives?
When you think about it, isn't the station obligated to TELL THE WHOLE TRUTH. Should the report go beyond trying to prove one person's allegation? Is there an obligation to seek out the same story when it comes to the Democrats with a Kerry appearance.
A Lesson in Journalism Ethics
This was unscrupulous and irresponsible reporting. It was stupid and useless and yielded no valuable information for the viewers. I blame the so-called grown ups at WKBN who lacked the professionalism to see ethical dimensions of this undercover report and for manipulating an intern into carrying out their dirty work. Wiring an intern with secret microphones was sneaky and underhanded and clearly wrong.