Not Who You Say You Are: Is "Ambush Journalism" A Good Tactic?

From NPR CEO Ron Schiller to Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker these days no public figure is safe from so called Ambush Journalism. The LA Times recently ran an article on what seems to be an emerging trend – the gathering of information by pretending to be someone else. Essentially, misleading the target of your investigation by not disclosing who you are, or what information you are after and then publishing the video or audio recording.

In the case of Ron Schiller and Scott Walker the public devoured these recordings, causing if nothing else embarrassment and a lot of hoopla. But is this method of trapping people when they think they are off the record effective? The LA Times’ James Rainey argues that it isn’t, because even though the recordings aren’t exactly flattering they are A. easily manipulated and B. don’t always produce the intended result.

Rainey calls ambush journalism, “secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others.” In the case of Ron Schiller, Rainey (and NPR itself) argues that the tape show the NPR fundraiser towing the line between the organization’s journalistic activities and their fundraising activities by insisting that that NPR doesn’t bend its coverage to suit financial donors. According to Rainey, the tape succeeded in taking down Schiller because he also made statements about liberals being more intelligent and the Republican party being full of gun-loving extremists.

But not all ambush journalism is successful in taking down a target. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been a media target due to his attack on union bargaining rights and the subsequent protests at the capitol for the last month. Blogger Ian Murphy called Walker in February and claimed to be Republican campaign donor David Koch. Murphy was able to get Walker to admit that he considered planting trouble makers into the crowd of protestors, but they never actually did.

Really all Murphy accomplished was making Walker look arrogant, the phone call hoax just served to get the already over exposed governor into the media even more. All this makes me wonder if trying to trap targets by pretending to be a friend or ally when really you are trying to get them on record saying something incriminating is a good direction for investigative journalism to be heading.

Journalism is supposed to be about transparency. I believe journalists need to admit who they are and their affiliation. Even citizen journalists who intend to gather information and disseminate what they find out need to be honest about who they are. I don’t think there is a clear sense of right and wrong when a lie is exposed by a lie. But is there still room for morality and right vs. wrong in journalism these days?

Is the only way to get the “real” story to lie about who you are? I don’t think so. I think good investigative journalism, reporting, and writing can turn up the facts and paint a clear picture of a person or issue without having to trick them into saying something incriminating.

Maybe I’m idealistic but I don’t think you have to tell lies to get to the truth. I think if there is something incriminating to be found, hitting the books, checking the paper trail and following through with as many sources of possible will turn up the same information you might get out of trapping a target with an audio or video recording. I think ambush journalism is only necessary when we stop putting in the time it takes to be real reporters. If you have to trick people into talking to you – you just aren’t creating good journalism.

One thought on “Not Who You Say You Are: Is "Ambush Journalism" A Good Tactic?

  1. Definitely an ongoing debate in journalism. The most spectacular example of this was the Mirage Bar, a sting set up by the Chicago Tribune during (I think) the early ’80s to catch crooked city employees. It worked. But when it came up for a Pulitzer, the board refused to award the prize to deceptive practices in journalism.

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