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The boat on the border

A CNN crew is accused by another media outlet of airing border crossing scenes that were actually staged.

Updated: April 8, 2021

Before class (15 minutes)

Watch CNN witnesses dozens of migrants trying to cross Rio Grande then read

Did CNN Air a Staged Migrant Crossing of the Rio Grande?

Class time needed

20 minutes

Learning objectives

At the conclusion of this activity, participants will be able to:

  • Evaluate the core journalistic ethics raised by these stories
  • Determine whether the criticism of CNN has merit
  • Develop a professional and personal ethical standard for evaluating the veracity of witnessed events

Issue overview

On March 12, CNN aired a story in which a reporter in a boat on the Rio Grande showed viewers a scene of immigrants crossing the Rio Grande, the river that separates Mexico from the United States, in a small raft.

But according to a story in The American Prospect, “Immigrant rights advocates and others claim that the footage was staged, potentially with the cooperation of the Border Patrol. CNN was warned that the clip appeared to be a fabrication before it aired, but the network decided to run it anyway.”

A different angle of the same scene was disseminated across right-leaning media outlets around the same time.

Both The Guardian and local activists say the situation was unusual, pointing to the hour of day, the mask-wearing raft captains and the single-file line that formed on the river banks; they also noted that the location of the video was part of an area controlled by the U.S. Border Patrol.

CNN’s head of communications wrote in a tweet, “CNN did not participate in any type of coordinated effort to shoot a staged scene of migrants crossing the river nor have we found any credible evidence that suggests our team was unknowingly part of a set-up by Border Patrol or anyone else.” CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy also refuted the claim that CNN has participated in a staged event.

A Twitter thread by David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect, strongly protested Darcy’s interpretation of the event, saying that CNN’s handling of the incident was another example of “classic big media bullying.”

Both U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the union associated with Border Patrol agents deny staging the scene, with the latter inviting the FBI to investigate.

Discussion questions

  1. What are the core journalistic principles you see being called into question in this scenario?
  2. Describe CNN’s obligation to question and research the scene they boated into.
  3. Is there a situation in which it would be OK to knowingly air, show or host staged videos? Is it ever appropriate for journalists themselves to stage a scene? Why or why not?
  4. How might you evaluate the credibility of The American Prospect? What did you think of The American Prospect’s efforts to confirm the veracity of the video?
  5. What issues would be raised if government entities attempted to sway public opinion via the news media?