Erin Schermele Media Stings 10.28.

10 In 2005 the Mayor of Spokane, Jim West, went to a golf course to meet a blind date. Little did he know he would instead meet several reporters from the Spokane Spokesman Review waiting to bust him on a scandal that would ruin his career. According to Spokesman Review “for a quarter century...the man who is now Spokane’s mayor has used positions of public trust—as sheriff’s deputy, Boy Scout leader and powerful politician—to develop sexual relationships with boys and young men.” It is reported that West would meet people on the website, and hire them to work for him in his political office. Ryan Oelrich was appointed to Spokane’s human rights commission after meeting West on Oelrich said he resigned after six months because West made him feel uncomfortable with sexual propositions. The Spokesman Review caught wind of several men reporting similar encounters with West… and decided to set a trap. The paper hired its computer technologist to make a fake account on posing as a 17-year-old boy. After three months of investigation, the paper had enough evidence to prove West pursues sexual relations with other men via the Internet. They

set up a date at a golf course and confronted West about his hidden life. West admitted to having sexual relations with adult men. The situation above describes what can happen if news outlets set up media stings. The question…is this ethical? Essentially Mayor West was being tricked…but he also wanted to become sexually involved with an underage boy. Are media stings ok if they are outing a wrong? Or do they cross major privacy boundaries? One of the first media stings that brought up many ethical questions is the sting set up between the Chicago Sun Times and the Mirage Bar. In Chicago in 1978, there was lots of corruption in the city between businesses and inspectors. Everyone was cutting corners, but no one would talk. Investigative reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, Pamela Zekman, got permission to open a bar called the Mirage. They teamed up with the Better Government Association and bought a bar “full of more code violations than bar stools.” For two months they documented code inspectors coming in and taking bribes to ignore violations. They also were taught how to cut down on their taxes and accountants showed them how to give themselves some kickbacks. The 25-part piece caused an entire re-vamp and investigation on the city’s inspection division. Although this instance may have outed a wrong, the Sun Times was berated for use of hidden cameras and most Chicago newspapers no longer use them or consider them appropriate. Investigations editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press said “ Papers can’t

really show a story through pictures…we have to show the story with words.” Despite the difference between using hidden cameras for print or video publication, there seems to be a thin line where they are considered ok or not. CBS news’ hidden camera policy requires approval for the use of a hidden camera from a news division vice president and legal counsel, and is only used in places where they would have been denied access. However, being denied access doesn’t necessarily seem like a good enough reason to sneak in a hidden camera. Hidden cameras shouldn’t be used to substitute thorough reporting, but more so when a story can’t be done any other way. I spoke with the main weeknight producer at KPAX Missoula, Melissa Raferty. This summer there were several reports from a Lakeside correctional home for boys called Pinehaven. The story started when a couple of boys escaped from Pinehaven; once found they said they left because they were being abused and living conditions were horrible. Response from viewers came pouring in; many old attendants of the boys’ facility claiming they had been abused there as well. As the story continued to unfold it appeared there were many layers of corruption around Lakeview County and Raferty wanted to know more. She said they discussed for hours about how they could continue their investigation, but unfortunately the small station doesn’t have the resources for in depth investigative

journalism. However, as far at the ethical implications she said, “ oh I for sure believe stings are ethical, it is about what is better for the community, and what they have the right to know.” Another way stings are being used is on television shows. “To Catch a Predator” sets up child molesters on the Internet with people posing as teenagers. When the molesters show up at the meeting places, they are arrested. “What Would You Do” hires actors to do socially unacceptable things in public and watches people’s reactions to see if they stop the action, or mind their own business. Before starting this paper, I saw stings as something dramatic used to get good ratings from shows like “To Catch A Predator.” After doing more research I have found out how common stings and hidden cameras are used in investigative journalism. I think there is a fine line between when they are ethical to use and when they are breaching privacy rights. In the first three situations I mentioned, I think stings were used in the way they were meant. The investigators saw something that needed to be stopped, and a sting was the only way to make it end. If stings are used to put innocent people in awkward situations to be judged by a television audience, I think that is unacceptable. I also do not agree that should be used because reporters would have been denied access, unless it is for something that is detrimental to public knowledge. Questions proposed to the Class:

What is your current ethical belief about media stings? Are stings ethical if they are outing a wrong? Do stings breach privacy rights? Where is the line when hidden cameras should or shouldn’t be used? Assigned Class Readings: What would you do video “Man drugs date’s drink”
Spokesman Review vs. Mayor Jim West,9171,1061530,00.html


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