Printer Friendly


They are used to deceive, but also to gather important information. Today, as journalists continue to use hidden cameras, they remember past mistakes and are careful to keep

The footage is grainy. The camera shakes a little. The voices are a bit muffled. And while film school professors may give the video a poor grade for quality, television viewers oftentimes give it the big R: Ratings.

Hidden camera footage is sexy. It smacks of hard-nosed investigative reporters hiding in the shadows waiting to catch the bad guys, whether the men in the black hats are selling human organs on the black market, doing fraudulent auto repairs or abusing patients in a mental hospital. Viewers can be told that the kidneys and livers of Chinese prisoners are being sold on the streets, but seeing someone actually offer one up is quite another thing. That's when it becomes an outrage. That's when it becomes shocking.

Without the pictures, at least in the television business, you ain't got squat.

That's why the hidden camera footage aired by ABC News' "PrimeTime Live" in 1992 of workers at Food Lion - a Salisbury, N.C.-based grocery store chain - rinsing rotted meat in bleach and repackaging old meat products to look new, made such an impact. Food Lion's stock plummeted and consumers were repulsed. It was a typical hidden camera segment.

Then the lion struck back. The company sued ABC News and in 1997 won a $5.5 million punitive damage award after a North Carolina jury found two ABC producers committed fraud to get jobs as meat packers in order to be able to film in the company's meat divisions. Even though the case was based on what was called the news producers' "false resumes," media watchdogs bemoaned what they saw as the death knell of hidden camera use. Using hidden cameras is, after all, a form of deception, they said. How could investigative television reporting survive if one of its most powerful tools couldn't be used for fear of lawsuits?

Despite the fact that the astronomical jury award has since been reduced to $2 by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., when it overturned the fraud suit, many believe that the 4-year-old Food Lion case left behind a legacy of a more careful media and a more vigilant legal vetting process. But there are some who see no change in the use of hidden cameras and continue to point to "gotcha" pieces, where an 18-year-old clerk is caught on tape selling cigarettes to minors, as abuses of the trade.


Kerry Marash is the standards and practices guru at ABC News. She's the one whose approval you need if you're a producer looking to film some undercover footage of someone doing something, usually something bad. She and the legal team at ABC review the reporting. They examine the documents and press reporters and producers as to whether they've exhausted every other avenue of getting the information they need. In the end, Marash said, most of the hidden cam requests are turned down, sometimes with marching orders: Do more reporting.

The concept of having a legal team review every hidden camera request is relatively new to some news organizations, but Marash said it's not new at ABC, whose shows "PrimeTime Live" and "20/20" are considered the most frequent practitioners of the hidden camera technique.

In fact, Marash said there haven't been any significant changes in the way the network handles hidden camera requests since the well-publicized Food Lion case. "They're the same guidelines as they've always been," she said, adding that each request is weighed "very carefully [because hidden cameras] are not an ordinary tool."

Meanwhile, at CBS - whose original standard bearer "60 Minutes" was a pioneer of hidden cameras - the spokeswoman said that even before the Food Lion case, hidden cameras have been used "very, very infrequently." Saying that the network has a 100-page standards booklet and a stringent legal review process, CBS' Sandy Genelius said that at CBS, concealed recorders are not used as a shortcut to doing the background reporting."That's why we've got all our procedures in place," she said. "... I think it is a technique that can easily be abused."

NBC's spokeswoman did not return phone calls from Quill.

These approaches differ quite dramatically from the earlier days of hidden camera use and the explosion of TV newsmagazines when it was a veritable "free for all," according to Av Westin. Westin is a 52-year veteran of broadcast journalism at CBS and ABC and author of"Best Practices," a book on journalism techniques.

People staffing the promotions departments at the networks and local affiliates began to salivate whenever they thought about running a hidden camera piece, particularly during a ratings sweeps period, he said. "Hidden camera video is very promotable," said Westin, a former "20/20" executive producer. "... [Promoters think],'Wow, people are going to tune in.'" In the late 1980s and early 1990s, undercover video became omnipresent, he said, with some shows using hidden cameras "excessively."

Abuses of hidden camera techniques aren't as prevalent today, some believe, because the legal risks can be staggering and costly. Sandra Baron, the executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center, said although hidden cameras only played a small part in the Food Lion case, "It was a real wake-up call to the media." The initial multi-million-dollar jury award showed investigative journalists that "hidden cameras had legal consequences," Baron said.

While fears that the case would trigger the subjects of hidden camera investigations to grab the first lawyer they could find and file suit never came to pass, concerns about impinging on people's privacy and violating the melange of state privacy laws has become prevalent, she said. "I would suspect and hope that media would not abandon these techniques, but be a bit smarter," Baron said, adding that the Food Lion case should have served as a giant caution signal as cases involving concealed recording devices continue to mount.

In 1998, for example, California's Supreme Court ruled that using hidden equipment to record people in private places can be grounds for an invasion of privacy lawsuit. "The state may not intrude into the proper sphere of the news media to dictate what they should publish and broadcast, but neither may the media play tyrant to the people by unlawfully spying on them in the name of newsgathering," said Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, according to an Associated Press report.

In Phoenix, a federal judge in 1998 dismissed a fraud lawsuit against ABC after the network aired an award-winning hidden camera piece investigating a lab for failing to detect cancer cells in Pap smear tests.

But in February 2000, ABC paid a psychic hotline worker $900,000, the AP reported, after he filed suit over a 1993 hidden camera segment showing him at work, which was characterized as illegitimate. A jury in 1994 found in his favor, the AP said.

Westin said that the positive aspect of the Food Lion case's "chilling effect" on hidden camera use was that it forced journalists to stop and think before plowing ahead with a lipstick cam. "If it's a useful tool, I think it should be used," he said. "If it's just a toy, it destroys the credibility."


To Charles Lewis, whose TV credentials include more than six years with ABC News and five with "60 Minutes" as a producer for Mike Wallace, those hidden cameras can be so abused that they can taint the legitimate investigative reporters out there. "I do feel that, too often, I have a really bad feeling that I'm watching 'Candid Camera,'" said Lewis, now the executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit, non-partisan investigative reporting group. "... Where I have a problem is when it's gimmicky and it's used week after week for things that aren't important."

Baron agreed, saying that when TV journalists abuse hidden cameras, "It is viewed with great distaste by judges and juries." That particularly concerns her because she said that the public's dismay over such techniques leads to lawsuits "that will make bad law that will bind every other journalist in that jurisdiction."

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), said the novelty of hidden cameras has worn off. "My impression is that maybe the mania for them, where they were used for the special flavor of the technique ... has definitely waned," she said. "... Most people use hidden cameras now as a tool of last resort."

The Poynter Institute's resident media ethicist, Bob Steele, a former television reporter and producer, has written extensively on the dangers of letting unscrupulous or amateur persons use hidden cameras. In a 1998 piece for a Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) study on hidden cameras, Steele wrote that, while there are excellent examples of hidden camera use, they "are outweighed by the glut of hidden camera stories focusing on small-scale consumer scams, 'gotcha' pieces targeting someone for a minor breach of behavior, or weak investigative reports that simply don't justify the deception." He added, "Too often, hidden cameras are used as a promotional device rather than as a legitimate journalistic tool."

Brant Houston, executive director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors group (IRE), said journalists need to make sure they use the cameras only when they're appropriate - otherwise they chance incurring a public backlash. For example, he said there's no need to bring a hidden camera to campaign fundraising events, which he said are typically pretty open. "You can walk in with a camera and if you get thrown out, you get thrown out," Houston said. "I think the perception is that it's just a new toy."

But when camouflaged cameras are used responsibly, Houston said, "The public seems to accept that that is the way to go." He cited an "Inside Edition" story several years ago as a good example of hidden camera use where undercover reporters were trained how to sell insurance door-to-door in low-income neigh- borhoods, using high pressure tactics to persuade people into buying overpriced policies. One of the "Inside Edition" reporters got footage of a training session where the sales plan was outlined. "There was no way to deny what was happening," Houston said.

Lewis concurred, saying that there's a strong need to keep hidden cameras in a TV reporter's arsenal for the really important times when you need the picture to visually document the essence of the story - but never without doing the gumshoe reporting first. Hidden camera video "is sometimes incredibly revealing, and you wouldn't believe it until you see it," he said.

He pointed to a 1997 hidden camera piece "PrimeTime Live" did which went on to win awards, including one from IRE. That piece featured footage of a for-profit organ harvesting industry where the organs came from executed Chinese prisoners. Despite all the background reporting that the ABC News team did on the piece, without the video, Lewis said it wouldn't have been as poignant. "The problem here is if you go in there saying that, 'I hear you're doing this,' [officials will] say, 'I'm shocked. I'm shocked,' and deny it," he said.

Dave Rummel, who worked on the organ harvesting piece, said, "I think it's very instructive to see someone promising you a kidney and that day, a prisoner is getting executed who has the right blood type .... I think [hidden cameras] are a tool like any other." There are times, the 20-year television producer said, "when there isn't another way to tell a story."

Because his investigative team at ABC has always been "pretty strict" about its use of hidden cameras and only utilizes them for "serious stories," Rummel said he didn't really see any impact from the Food Lion case in his work.

But Duane Pohlman, chief investigative reporter for KING-TV in Seattle, said he sees the effects of the Food Lion cautionary tale every day. "We are nowhere near where the use of hidden cameras once was," Pohlman said, adding he's seen many of his TV brethren overuse the technique in the recent past. "I don't think that's a bad thing that we had a chilling effect" on the use of concealed recorders, he said.

Pohlman was in the midst of an investigation of a large company for violating several laws, including animal cruelty, just as the $5.5 million Food Lion verdict came down against ABC. He was attempting to get authorization from his station to have employees from the company in question bring a hidden camera in to film the violations. "We could not pass the legal hurdles with Food Lion remaining," he said.

Concerns over invading people's privacy and whether a station or network would get sued over its use of a hidden camera has made people work smarter and think more about what they're doing, Pohlman said. Nowadays, in order to get the green light to use a hidden camera, he needs approval from the station's owner and the legal department before proceeding.

RTNDA's Cochran agrees that the plethora of hidden cam lawsuits has had an impact on the way investigative TV journalists operate. "I think that legal vetting has intensified," she said. "Let's face it, we live in a very litigious age.

Regardless of all the hurdles, Pohlman said he sees hidden cameras as absolutely necessary to his profession. "The record shows that if you're trying to get to the truth and you're using a visual medium, the picture doesn't lie," he said.

Even Bob Lissit, a Syracuse University journalism ethics professor who was an expert witness against ABC News in the Food Lion case, said there's a time and a place for hidden cameras, like when they supplement "extraordinarily good research and document reporting."

"A great many important stories could not have been told as well, if at all, had hidden cameras not been used," he said in an email interview.

But the former network news producer doesn't think that the number of hidden camera stories has decreased. "What has seemed to go down is the number of stories that use active deception by reporters or producers in gaining access to use hidden cameras," Lissit said.


The crux of the Food Lion case was whether or not the ABC producers lied or put misleading information on the job applications they filled out in order to secure jobs with the grocery store chain. Subsequently, many journalism ethicists used this case to issue dictates: Thou shalt not lie, particularly when investigating with hidden cameras. But some of the practitioners of the craft don't go that far, saying that just the mere fact of having a hidden camera around means some kind of lying is going on.

"There is deceit here in one form or another," said Lewis of hiding recording equipment.

RTNDA posts ethical guidelines on its Web site regarding the behavior of broadcast journalists saying, "Use surreptitious newsgathering techniques, including hidden cameras or microphones, only if there is no other way to obtain stories of significant public importance and only if the technique is explained to the audience." The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics makes the same point stating, "Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story."

Westin is staunch in his belief that as an investigative reporter, "You should never lie." "You can omit information," he said, "but if it comes to directly falsifying your information about who you are, no, you shouldn't do that."

Pohlman sees nothing wrong with hiding cameras as long as the readers are told what transpired and how the reporters got their information. "Is taking a big, bulky camera out and putting up lights reality? No," he said. "By the nature of the TV medium, you are distorting reality." Using hidden cameras is the only way to try to capture the truth, even though it involves some deception to get at the truth, Pohlman said. He added that he never has to lie when he's reporting - "But you don't have to divulge the total truth."

Steele addressed the lying issue in his RTNDF piece saying: "Since we are in the business of pursuing truth, there is more than a hint of hypocrisy when we use deceit to chase that goal. We can only justify that inconsistency- and the use of deception - when we truly serve a greater principle, such as pursuing a highly important (and otherwise elusive) truth."

To Lissit - who believes hidden cameras are overused and appropriate in very few cases - while the use of hidden cameras for something like a consumer story may be OK, it wouldn't be if "it includes major active deception as well."

"Hiding a camera under the hood of an auto, or in a wall overlooking a broken refrigerator, hardly jeopardizes the future of ethical journalism," he said.

But too much deception can leave a bad taste in viewers' mouths, particularly when hidden cam reports are prominently featured during the sweeps periods.

A 1999 Freedom Forum/University of Connecticut poll found that the number of people who strongly believe that journalists should not use hidden cameras is on the rise. Between 1997 and 1999, the percentage of people who did not believe reporters should be allowed to use hidden cameras went from 65 to 72 percent. By contrast, the percentage that believed that hidden cameras are acceptable to use went from 31 to 27 percent.

It's figures like those that worry the likes of Westin and Lissit.

Westin, who said he worked for Edward R. Murrow as a copy boy, said journalists need to be careful about the impact their reporting techniques have on how broadcast investigative reporters are perceived. "I have a proprietary interest in preserving the moral high ground of TV," he said.

People who use deception take chances, Lissit said. "Deception can make TV news viewers suspicious of what they're seeing," he said. "That's a serious risk."

(Editor's note: O'Brien worked with Lewis at the Center for Public Integrity five years ago.)

Meredith O'Brien is afree-lance writer.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Society of Professional Journalists
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:television use of hidden cameras
Author:O'Brien, Meredith
Publication:The Quill
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2001

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters