It is investigative journalism at its most compelling. You suspect that a supermarket chain is selling old meat. Get some people jobs in one of their stores and place tiny, hidden cameras on them. If you’re right and everything goes according to plan, then the evidence will be there on camera, on screen – shots of employees affixing new dates to packages of old meat. But this is also, as American news organizations have been learning in the past decade, investigative journalism at its most ethically questionable.
In its early decades television journalists struggled with the problem of what to show. Too often cameras weren’t on the scene – as the injustice, for example, was perpetrated. Words could recreate. A camera couldn’t. But these miniature cameras can now go anywhere a reporter, even an undercover reporter, can go. Injustices can be exposed to view, not just recounted. A new, properly visual, drama has been added to television news. And in the United States in the 1990s that drama certainly has been welcomed.
To understand this it is necessary to recall another way in which television journalism has changed: In its early decades it was, even in its advertising-dominated American incarnation, a relatively genteel business. Network newscasts, local newscasts secured good will and made money. But with the proliferation of channels and networks in the 1980s and 1990s that is not always so. And with networks and stations being shuffled between corporations like playing cards that is not always enough. The television news business in the United States is no longer genteel; it is money hungry.
News programming – particularly hour-length, multi-subject "magazine" shows – are now viewed as a relatively inexpensive, high-profit way to fill some of those channels, even during "prime-time" evening hours. There are now three all-news networks in the United States (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) and, the last time I made my way through the increasingly complex television schedule, two prime-time magazine shows on one or another of the three major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) every day of the week except Saturday.
The competition for hot, ratings-drawing news on these shows is intense, and only so many exclusive interviews with Monica Lewinsky are available. Hidden cameras can help.
They have been placed by journalists working for network magazine shows under automobiles to show phony repairs by shady mechanics. These lipstick-size cameras have been secreted in day care centers and hospitals to show children or patients being abused. They have followed black and white couples as they try to rent the same apartment. Two shows in particular were known for their liberal and creative use of these undercover techniques: ABC’s PrimeTime Live (which has now been merged into that network’s 20/20) and Dateline NBC. But local newscasts have purchased their own miniature cameras. Mouse droppings on a supermarket floor? Captured on video.
Injustices have been exposed by these hidden cameras. Ratings have been secured. And some stomachs have grown queasy.
The most talked about and controversial of these hidden-camera exposes was PrimeTime Live’s incursion into two Food Lion supermarkets in 1992. ABC’s broadcast of videotape showing old meat being redated and even repackaged caused an 11 percent, or about $1.9 billion, drop in the company’s stock price the next day. Food Lion went to court.
In 1997 a jury found that the ABC employees who had surreptitiously obtained jobs at the two supermarkets in order to sneak the tiny cameras in were guilty of fraud, trespass and breach of "loyalty" to their ostensible employer. ABC was asked to pay $5.5 million in punitive damages to Food Lion. That amount was later reduced to $315,000, and in October 1999 an appeals court threw out the fraud claim and reduced the damages to a total of two dollars.
Other lawsuits have been filed against television news organizations that have used hidden cameras, on charges ranging from invasion of privacy to defamation. (See Brill’s Content article.) Most have not been successful. Nevertheless, journalists using these techniques have grown more cautious, and an ethical debate on when or if they should be used has raged.
Robert Lissit, a former network television producer writing in the American Journalism Review in 1995, presented a few examples of highly questionable uses of hidden cameras by local news organizations in the United States. Lissit’s list included a station in St. Louis that placed a male prostitute and a camera in a hotel room in an effort to get a priest to talk about the sexual activities of members of the clergy. It included a station in Schenectady, New York, that fixed a high school girl up with a hidden camera to obtain shots of discipline problems. I have also seen such cameras used, for example, to catch welfare recipients bragging about their lies.
Most of the issues raised by hidden cameras parallel those raised on other occasions where journalists go undercover, misrepresent themselves or try to entrap citizens into committing or revealing illegal behaviors. Would it have been any more legitimate for a newspaper to use a prostitute and a hotel room to obtain verbal, not visual, evidence that priests were having sex?
Critics of hidden cameras point out that videotape can easily be edited to make matters look worse. Food Lion argued, for example, that ABC had left out scenes where supermarket employees had refused to redate old meat. But descriptions and quotes in a newspaper can also be used selectively and used to distort. Is the potential deception more serious because video looks so much more real and believable than newspaper writing? Only if the audience is naïve enough to discount the possibility of selective editing.
It is difficult to imagine any circumstances where journalists in any medium would be justified in encouraging someone to commit a crime – such as patronizing a prostitute. Circumstances do appear to exist where journalists might be justified in going undercover. In 1887 the intrepid New York World reporter Nellie Bly pretended to be insane for ten days to expose conditions in a notorious asylum. In order to research his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair secretly wandered about a Chicago meat-packing plant; his expose led to the passage of U.S. regulations on food cleanliness.
Still, such circumstances – in which journalists essentially assume the right to lie – are limited. The injustices or hazards to public welfare involved must be very large, as they seem to have been in Bly’s asylum and Sinclair’s meat-packing plant. A huge supermarket chain whose policies allegedly create health risks might qualify. A small local grocer who is a little lazy with the broom would not.
And, journalism ethicists who have begun debating these matters in the United States agree, it should be clear that there is no other good way to obtain the story. ABC argued that simply having former employees come on camera to charge that Food Lion redated old meat would have made for a much weaker story. Company spokespeople would then have accused them of lying. The public would have been left in doubt. But if the story is government corruption the case can often best be made by legally obtained documents not by sneaking undercover reporters or "spy cams," as they are now known at some local stations, into government offices.
Were investigative journalists – with or without hidden cameras – to disregard such strictures, we would risk having a kind of auxiliary police force checking up on our lives: reporters hidden on the roads to see who is driving too fast, reporters undercover in accountants’ offices to see who is cheating on taxes, reporters staking out hotels to see who is sleeping with whom.
There is one significant way in which hidden cameras do increase the threat to privacy and even personal freedom that investigative reporting can pose: They show faces. It is one thing for a reporter to stand outside a welfare office and then print, without names, stories of cheating; it is quite another to broadcast to millions of homes pictures of some loose-lipped individual who had no idea his comments were going to be made public. Similarly, it is one thing to interview students about discipline problems, quite another to publicly humiliate a few misbehaving teenagers or lax teachers by sneaking a television-news camera into a school.
Technology is now available that can enable television journalists to blur out faces. It probably should be used liberally.
Hidden cameras, like other forms of investigative journalism, can do good things – for society as well as for ratings. But many observers of television news in the United States now argue that they should be used very sparingly.