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WHEN DO REPORTERS GO TOO FAR?

by LConners

KMOV.com

Posted on April 2, 2007 at 6:09 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 3:00 PM

WISE MEN TALK BECAUSE THEY HAVE
SOMETHING TO SAY ... FOOLS, BECAUSE
THEY HAVE TO SAY SOMETHING.
(PLATO)


Plato's quote is a guide for these blogs. I leave it to the reader to decide which applies.


"KCBD General Manager Dan Jackson said Coy-Jones 'broke no laws while pursuing a story testing security measures at Amarillo hospitals." Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas)

That quote refers to KCBD TV reporter Cecelia Coy-Jones. Either she or KCBD-TV news management decided that she should test hospital security measures because of what happened in early March. Police say a woman kidnapped a newborn from a Lubbock hospital; the baby was later recovered in safe condition, and the woman faces charges.

Reporter Coy-Jones was dressed in hospital scrubs and carrying a large orange bag... (similar to how the kidnapper was dressed and hid the baby) while she visited 2 hospital maternity wards. She did her investigation at Amarillo hospitals ... not in Lubbock where the crime occurred. Amarillo is in the Texas Panhandle... about 110 miles north of Lubbock.

Supposedly, Coy-Jones showed up in the maternity wards… asked questions about security... and was sometimes seen to be somewhat evasive on security camera as she appeared to be trying to hide. Other than those activities… she did not attempt to actually take a baby.

Reportedly, when hospital personnel began to question of who she was... Coy-Jones did show identification and identify herself as a reporter.

Still, she was arrested. Now, the Potter County District Attorney might file charges ... but what charges is still not clear.

So, based on the above information.. was KBCD TV General Manager Jackson correct when he said: she broke no laws?

Even if she didn't break laws .. did she step over the line? When do news reporters/news organization go too far when investigating a story? It's done all the time from reporters/news producers/news interns posing as a normal citizen.. to diving into trash dumpsters for information ... to actually going undercover to expose a crime or some malfeasance when they believe such tactics are the only way to get the story.

I will admit that in more than 40 years in this business.. I have sometimes used such tactics. I have flashed my news credentials in such a way .. that someone assumed that I was with police .. though I never identified myself as an officer and when confronted .. fully identified myself. In the early 70s when plane hijackings were occurring.. I demonstrated how easy it was to get a pistol through existing security. (It was actually a starter's pistol .. not an actual weapon.) I have gone undercover to expose kickbacks to protect prostitutes from police arrests. Those are just some of my instances.

A 2003 AMERICAN JOURNALIST SURVEY from Indiana University asked journalists whether several reporting practices "may be justified on occasion" if the situation involved an "important story". Only 54% of reporters justified the practice, and that was a 9% decline from the previous year (2002). 78% of reporters justified using confidential business or government documents without authorization.

That reasoning is the kind of thinking that supported the release of the Pentagon Papers; in 1971 former State Department Official Daniel Ellsberg linked the papers to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times. The papers detailing Top Secret political and military involvement in Vietnam were clearly not for public release, but The Times published these "stolen" papers.

In 1992 ABC Prime Time Live did a report on food handling practices in deli and meat departments for the Food Lion Stores. Two ABC News employees wore hidden cameras and microphones to document the health violations. The Food Lion vs. ABC lawsuit did not question the truth of the reports .. but that the employees lied to get their jobs .. claiming to be experienced deli and meat department workers. The jury found ABC News employees and bosses committed fraud and trespass.

In 1999, Vice President/News and Editor Frank Sutherland of the Tennessean newspaper admitted he spent 31 days posing as a patient in a state mental hospital for an investigative report. One of his reporters spent 18 months undercover as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In those cases and others ... his reporters misrepresented themselves to get the story. Sutherland is no longer defending those actions. He wrote that deceptive practices are not worth the damage they do to a news organization's credibility. He wrote: It doesn't matter how many tools we have if our readers don't believe us. And they are only going to believe us if we have a set of Principles that say we don't lie, cheat or steal and that we are honest in the way we gather the news.

So, what is the line that should not be crossed?

The line is vague ... wavering.. on a case by case basis .. and is debated by even the most seasoned reporters and editors.

For instance, one of the base guidelines is: a reporter does not commit a crime. That sounds undeniable ... but, if a reporter commits the crime of trespassing to get a story .. sometimes it will be decided .. that crime is worth the story. The same reasoning could apply to Top Secret government or company information, which is stolen by someone not associated, encouraged nor renumerated in any way by the news organization. That crime might also be acceptable. One standard that USUALLY is iron clad: a reporter will not carry a badge or other identification to pose as a member of law enforcement.

It is a fact that sometimes without some undercover type investigations ... some stories of crimes, violations, security threats, scams of citizens.. would never see the light of day. Consider the Food Lion story. The guilty or inept simply don't invite reporters in to see what they are doing.

So, two final questions for you: When do you think a story warrants clandestine journalistic tactics ... and how far should a reporter go?

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