Experts Say Undercover Journalism Leads To Creative Lawsuits
Feb. 11, 1995
MIAMI (AP) _ Hidden cameras and other undercover tactics by the news media can uncover important stories but the angry targets of such journalism are finding new ways to sue, experts told a national gathering of lawyers Saturday.
More and more lawsuits call news-gathering techniques into question, said Barbara Wall, senior legal counsel for Gannett Co., who spoke at an American Bar Association convention meeting called ``Cams, Scams and Legal Jams.''
Recent lawsuits against the news media have invoked state and federal laws on eavesdropping and wiretapping, trespass, fraud and the privacy-related protection against ``intrusion of seclusion.''
``You have to think of it as a moving target,'' said Wall, referring to how courts treat such legal claims.
In one case, a New Jersey reporter said she was ``from the morgue'' in order to secure an interview with a convict's mother. The journalist got into trouble for posing as a public official.
In another case, a television network intern in California ran afoul of a state law against eavesdropping when she got work as a telephone psychic and secretly videotaped other psychics. The intern was also sued for invasion of privacy and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
And when one of the psychics captured on six seconds of videotape later died of a liver ailment, the lawsuit added a claim of wrongful death.
``These are some of the problems that can arise,'' Wall said.
To address the issue, the Society of Professional Journalists has developed a list of conditions under which use of hidden cameras and other forms of misrepresentation might be justified:
_The information obtained is of profound importance, revealing great social harm or preventing profound harm.
_All other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.
_The journalists involved are willing to disclose the nature of the deception and the reason for it.
_The story is pursued fully and with outstanding craftsmanship.
_The harm prevented through deception outweighs any harm caused by it.
But Mark Middlebrook, assistant managing editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, emphasized that print and broadcast journalists don't answer to the same kind of ethical rules that bind doctors and lawyers.
``The rules are there are no rules,'' Middlebrook said. But, he added, ``When journalists make promises, they have an obligation to keep them.''