You might call them “undercover activists.”
People posing as pimps and prostitutes visit Planned Parenthood clinics. A Humane Society investigator gets a job at a California slaughterhouse to seek out violations of animal cruelty laws. Republican aides who identify themselves as students “working on a project” confront a North Carolina congressman and elicit a violent response. Yet another set of fake pimps and prostitutes visits offices of ACORN, the controversial community organization.
All the while, cameras record video that eventually makes its way onto YouTube.
Sometimes the cameras are hidden. In other cases, the recording devices are in plain sight, but the activists conceal their own identities.
Either way, the resulting videos often are picked up by the mainstream media, where they help set the news agenda and have profound effects on their targets.
They put Planned Parenthood on the defensive, helped lead to the closing of the slaughterhouse, and accelerated ACORN’s slide into bankruptcy. The video of Congressman Bob Etheridge was YouTube’s most watched “news and politics” video last year and almost certainly played a role in his November election defeat.
But the exposés also pose challenges for traditional journalists, who must judge whether they’re accurate or deceptive and whether they constitute legitimate news or theatrics.
“Utilizing this type of thing is really fraught with both legal and ethical concerns for mainstream media,” said University of Minnesota media ethics professor Jane Kirtley.
“How do you know who prepared it? How do you know it wasn’t selectively edited? How do you know it remotely is what is purports to be?
“It’s as problematic as if someone unbeknownst to you sent you a video in a brown wrapper over the transom.”
“Overused and misused”
The undercover activists borrow some of their techniques from mainstream journalism. Since the days of Nellie Bly and Upton Sinclair, reporters have concealed their identities to infiltrate places where the press would be unwelcome.
CBS News’ “60 Minutes” helped pioneer clandestine video investigations in the 1970’s, and television networks continue to employ them to ensnare allegedly unscrupulous air duct cleaners, rogue medical clinics, and other scourges.
Yet such methods are controversial, even when practiced by traditional journalists.
Critics, for instance, questioned the tactics of “To Catch a Predator,” the NBC news series that sought to expose sex fiends. And in a landmark legal case, the Food Lion supermarket chain won a $5.5 million fraud judgment from ABC News (later reduced to just $2 by an appeals court), after a hidden-camera report alleged unsanitary food handling practices.
“Clearly, undercover and hidden camera reporting have been overused and misused by many news organizations,” said Poynter’s Bob Steele, who also directs the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University.
More than a decade ago, Steele developed professional standards for undercover television journalists, recommending that deception only be used as a tool of last resort if there’s no other way to report “exceptionally important information.”
He also stressed journalists’ obligations to supplement covert video with well-researched context, and to balance it by considering the impact on its targets.
But while Steele concedes that mainstream media sometimes fall short of these standards, the activist-produced videos raise additional concerns.
“Those activist groups do not do what journalism does,” Steele said in a phone interview. “They have a very strong loyalty to their agenda, which may not be consistent with telling the truth to the public.”
Indeed, many undercover activist videos consist of nothing more than the “sting” itself. They typically provide no context on the targeted group or individual and sometimes can leave a viewer wondering what “exceptionally important information” the activist was trying to uncover. Some seem like little more than efforts to goad the target into saying something embarrassing.
Planned Parenthood videos go viral
Yet activist videos often generate considerable media coverage. The recent Planned Parenthood sting — by the anti-abortion group Live Action — sparked stories in The New York Times and Washington Post, on the “CBS Evening News,” and on Fox News. The Wall Street Journal labeled the revelations a “video scandal,” and reported that one video “appears to show” a New Jersey Planned Parenthood worker advising a purported sex trafficker about care for underage prostitutes.
The story continued to gain traction as Planned Parenthood fired the New Jersey worker and both Planned Parenthood and Live Action requested law enforcement investigations of each other. Live Action also released more videos recorded in Virginia, New York, and Washington, D.C., leading to additional coverage from local media.
“There was some initial reluctance not to make too much of what really wasn’t that big of a story,” said Laurence Hammack of the Roanoke (Va.) Times, who wrote about Live Action Feb. 5 after a man posing as a sex worker recorded video at a local Planned Parenthood office.
“But once it became clear that this was something that was generating national news and all of a sudden was happening right here in Roanoke, the decision was made pretty quickly that we wanted a story,” Hammack said by phone.
Hammack’s article provided context — pointing out that the latest Live Action videos were part of an ongoing national campaign by abortion opponents to attack Planned Parenthood’s federal funding. It reported Live Action’s allegation that Planned Parenthood condoned the sexual exploitation of minors, but balanced it with Planned Parenthood’s response, noting that Roanoke clinic workers did nothing illegal during the recorded visit and called law enforcement agencies to report the episode.
(A separate Times editorial — which Hammack was not involved with — went further, calling Live Action’s accusations “lies” and the video a “scam.”)
Likewise, an ABC News story about Live Action’s Richmond, Va., clinic visit quoted a legal expert who said the Planned Parenthood staff responded properly. “Unlike the first (New Jersey) video, the Richmond clinic worker appears to act professionally and appropriately,” ABC reported.
Other journalists seemed more willing to accept Live Action’s interpretation of events. “This undercover video … makes your jaw drop,” began a story on WPIX-TV in New York.
“Is Richmond’s Planned Parenthood turning a blind eye to minors being exploited as sex workers?” asked an anchor at WTVR-TV, the city’s CBS affiliate, which aired Live Action’s Richmond video hours after the organization released it Feb. 3.
“You take an organization at its word,” said WTVR reporter Greg McQuade in a phone interview. He said he “did his homework” and was satisfied that Live Action is a “legitimate operation.”
McQuade’s stories included excerpts of the clinic video, an interview with Live Action founder Lila Rose, and reaction from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a vocal Planned Parenthood opponent. McQuade also read a written Planned Parenthood statement. (Planned Parenthood made a spokeswoman available later that evening, and WTVR aired an on-camera interview on its 11:00 p.m. newscast.)
“We wouldn’t just throw something willy-nilly on the air,” McQuade said. “We wanted to touch all bases and make sure Planned Parenthood was duly represented.”
Both Hammack and McQuade said their news operations have no specific policies on how to handle undercover activist videos. Kirtley — the Minnesota professor — said she found few newsrooms with such policies when she researched the subject last spring.
But she warns that a lack of clear guidelines can jeopardize an organization’s credibility, especially if it broadcasts an activist’s homemade video without scrutiny or appears to accept its conclusions.
“You’re putting your news organization’s name on the line if you’re adopting this as being what it purports to be,” Kirtley said. “Then what separates you from YouTube or anybody else who simply posts things without making any attempt to vet it?”