Two of the TV news teams featured in EXPOSÉ’s “Security Theater” used hidden cameras to get the inside scoop on airport security.
The ethical debate over the use of hidden cameras in journalism is a heated one. ABC’s Primetime Live has used hidden cameras to uncover spoiled meat in supermarkets and abuse in nursing homes. And let’s not forget Dateline NBC‘s wildly popular and controversial “To Catch a Predator” series, in which hidden cameras and sting operations are used to bust pedophiles on the Internet.
The hidden camera is an invaluable tool for reporters seeking to acquire proof of wrongdoing, abuse, and fraud. But it can also be a dangerous tool if used for the wrong reasons. And the many lawsuits filed against news organizations charging invasion of privacy, trespassing, and fraud because of the improper use of hidden cameras show just how dangerous a tool it can be. (In the most famous case, a jury ruled in favor of Food Lion, purveyor of the above cited spoiled meat, against ABC’s Primetime Live for the show’s fraudulent use of undercover reporters and hidden cameras—to the tune of $5.5 million in punitive damages.)
Bob Steele, a journalist and contributor to an ethics columnist for Poynter.org came up with this helpful set of guidelines over a decade ago for reporters who are considering using a hidden camera or any kind of deception or misrepresentation in newsgathering. (In this month’s American Journalism Review, Steele’s guidelines were invoked in an attempt to judge the ethics of Harper’s reporter Ken Silverstein’s recent undercover stint in which he found out what kinds of unsavory things Washington lobbyists are willing to do for dictators, for the right price.) Steele further suggests reporters ask themselves questions such as: Have I exhausted all other investigative options? Does the public service of this investigation outweigh the deception involved in using a hidden camera? Is there an escape plan in case the undercover reporter is exposed?