Thursday, September 17, 2009

What you should learn from the ACORN tapes

There's been a lot of discussion about those now famous undercover tapes taken at various ACORN offices around the country. Are these tactics kosher? Is this "gotcha journalism?" Do the rules go out the window since this was done by a filmmaker rather than a news organization? What's the line between investigative journalism and misrepresentation?

And it's interesting that the young lady who portrayed the lady of the evening is a journalism student.

I'm sure everyone has an opinion. And I'm sure a few of you are thinking you could knock out some great stories doing undercover work like this.

So, some thoughts...

Networks have been doing hidden camera stuff for years. Since on-camera people are too well known, I've seen plenty of producers pretend to be clueless motorists in the hope of getting ripped off by mechanics, news assistants trying to buy stolen goods, and a host of other similar scenarios designed to catch people breaking the law. And if you've made a phone call pretending to be someone else in order to get important information, it's no different.

The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes what you might think is a small story could be something that can change the world in a big way. The Watergate break-in would have been a nothing story had not Woodward and Bernstein done some digging.

And regardless of your opinion on what these two filmmakers did, they showed what you can come up with if you're willing to dig and not wait for a story to fall in your lap. I'm not advocating that you should use their methods, just that you should learn to keep your eyes open and really look for stuff that could potentially be a good story.

But if you're thinking about doing stuff like this, some things to keep in mind:

-You have to run things by the ND before you start. Make sure that if you are doing a story like this, you are legally protected and the station is behind you. Many times a ND will run it by the station's legal counsel.

-Learn the definition of a "one party state." Laws regarding secret recordings are different everywhere. A "one party state" usually means that if one person knows a recording is being made, it's legal. (Well, duh. Doesn't offer much protection for the other person, but I don't make the laws here.) You always need to check the laws of your state before doing anything that might land you in jail.

-You need script approval before anything hits the air. Then you need management to watch your complete story before it hits the air.

-What's the line between entrapment and journalism that makes the community a better and safer place? Sit down with your local District Attorney sometime and find out the ground rules.

-Be careful. Never put yourself or your photog in danger.

-If the issue is very controversial, consider what it might do to your career and your life. Appearing to take a side in a hot button issue can give you a label you don't want: biased.

What I find interesting is that the biggest story of the day was broken by two people who don't even work in the news business. Which only illustrates the sad fact that most journalists no longer act, they react.

When was the last time you really dug up a story from scratch?

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