Tuesday, August 20

Ethics apply to indie media, too

While independent reporters bring news to many, their methods must maintain integrity

Lila Rose considers herself an investigative journalist with a mission.

“My issue right now is the right to life for all people ““ young and old, from all origins and races,” Rose said.

The third-year history student founded The Advocate, a student-run anti-abortion magazine that has challenged policies of UCLA’s Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center and Planned Parenthood, using hidden cameras and tape recorders to report on alleged illegal health care activities.

Rose received a stern talking-to from UCLA administrators following The Advocate’s investigation of the Ashe Center, in which an employee was secretly taped encouraging a student to get an abortion.

In May 2007, Planned Parenthood issued a cease-and-desist notice and threatened legal action against Rose after a YouTube video posted online showed a Planned Parenthood employee encouraging Rose, who was disguised as a 15-year-old pregnant girl, to lie about her age in order to get an abortion without her 23-year-old boyfriend being accused of statutory rape.

Though Rose has received criticism and pressure, Planned Parenthood has twice apologized for alleged illegal and racist actions uncovered by The Advocate, which has received praise from pro-life activists including Dr. Alveda King, niece of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

While it may be tempting to judge the merits of The Advocate in accordance with political attitudes surrounding the abortion debate, Rose’s case raises questions about the future of investigative journalism in this country.

Technology has allowed normal people to produce and distribute stories to a mass audience with little to no resources or expertise.

While I applaud that this lets those who otherwise wouldn’t be heard by mainstream media to be heard, independent journalists need to be careful to conduct investigations that maintain journalistic and legal standards.

Though it may be more difficult to expose certain corruptions in society, there are effective ways to conduct investigative pieces that do not compromise integrity.

The Society of Professional Journalists provides a Code of Ethics that helps journalists produce stories with integrity, including investigative pieces.

“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,” reads a section of the code under “Seek Truth and Report It.”

Rose said she follows the code’s recommendations and feels the nature of The Advocate’s reporting method was crucial to informing the public about vital issues.

“It’s unfair to characterize my journalism as bad when its techniques have been used by investigative journalists throughout history to uncover truth and find out what happens behind closed doors,” Rose said.

Indeed, such investigative techniques have been used effectively by journalists.

The food service industry has faced far more scrutiny due to hidden camera reports. For example, all eating places in Los Angeles County must post letter-grade health evaluations in their windows as a result of a hidden-camera investigation in the Los Angeles Times.

But it’s often illegal for journalists to rely on hidden recording devices to conduct their reporting.

According to the American Journalism Review, the last six years have seen an increase in hidden camera reporting, and numerous plaintiffs have sued media outlets and won, for being taped without their consent in a presumably private setting.

Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator,” for example, is being sued for $100 million by the sister of a Texas district attorney who committed suicide following being caught on tape by the show.

California has especially strict privacy laws, in part brought on by the Hollywood paparazzi frenzy. But even when hidden camera reporting is legal and lawsuits are not filed, undercover reporting using such techniques is often considered lazy or sensational.

Some of the most ground-breaking investigative reports in the 20th century, such as stories about Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandal, were conducted by journalists not through illegal reporting but through effective networking and negotiation with sources, who can provide testimony and access to official records.

Though Rose’s tactics have been effective at exposing possibly illegal activity and garnering media attention, as The Advocate progresses with its investigations, I hope it can use methods that honor the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics yet still uncover corruption and bring about change.

There is plenty of information damaging to Planned Parenthood that has been uncovered without electronic devices.

Two days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that a $180 million lawsuit was recently filed against Planned Parenthood by a former vice president who contends that their offices in California had overbilled patients for contraceptives.

The allegations are supported by a 2004 state audit that showed centers in Riverside and San Diego counties overbilled patients by $5.2 million.

Rose could also seek more testimonials from former Planned Parenthood patients and employees.

People such as P. Victor Gonzalez, who filed the suit, could provide valuable information beyond what can be uncovered by one person’s encounter with one employee.

I highly admire the fact that Rose has chosen to use the media to spread information about her cause.

As mainstream media continues to lose market share to independent reporters, it’s necessary that they pass the torch and support those who want to conduct investigations to expose corruption.

But in assuming the role of investigative journalists, I hope that these reporters can respect privacy, the law and the need for journalistic integrity.

E-mail Noble at [email protected]

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