The indictment of two members of the investigative team that produced the infamous undercover video of Planned Parenthood officials came as a shock on Jan. 25. A Houston grand jury had been convened to review allegations that Planned Parenthood had been unlawfully trading in fetal tissue, but it was the self-appointed investigators who ended up facing actual criminal indictments by the time the jury completed its work.
David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt from the Center for Medical Progress, the group responsible for recording the hidden-camera video, were charged with one felony related to tampering with a governmental record, apparently in reference to their use of a fake government ID, and a misdemeanor count related to buying human tissue. The turnabout produced a wave of media coverage heavy with schadenfruede among supporters of Planned Parenthood and bitter charges of prosecutorial bias and journalistic hypocrisy from media which had supported the tactics of Daleiden and colleagues at the C.M.P.
For his part Daleiden issued a simple statement: “The Center for Medical Progress uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press, and follows all applicable laws,” he said in a statement posted on the C.M.P. website on Jan. 25.
He added that “buying fetal tissue requires a seller as well."
“Planned Parenthood,” he said, “still cannot deny the admissions from their leadership about fetal organ sales captured on video for all the world to see.”
Kelly McBride is a media ethicist and Vice President of Academic Programs at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education and analysis think tank. She says the institute has long cautioned against the use of hidden camera video, “which we generally say is bad, bad, bad,” a technique fraught with both ethical and legal hazards for even the most seasoned journalists. She half-kiddingly suggests had the C.M.P. team come to Poynter for training before beginning their undercover work, they might not have found themselves in the trouble they are in today.
Whether or not Daleiden and his team broke the law, their tactics were far afield from what could be understood as acceptable journalistic practices, even in investigations that by necessity must rely on hidden-camera, she argues. The overriding ethic for any journalist, she says, is truth, beginning with how journalist represent themselves in the field. “You have to infuse truthfulness and honesty and transparency in your process and your product.” McBride denied that the C.M.P. effort measured up to basic standards of investigative journalism because its methods were opaque and the evidence produced “was prejudiced and even distorted.”
Professional journalists also have to be careful to remain within the law, especially in regard to recording people without permission, and within general expectations of privacy “even in public.”
“Is it undercover video from an employee who had a right to be there or someone who trespassed to get into the place? Is it accurate or is it a distortion,” she asks, running through a criteria for assessing the justification for using or orchestrating hidden camera exposes.
McBride believes the C.M.P. investigation steps outside the “very large tent of journalism” because, like recent documentarians preparing content for mainstream consumption, they approached their subject with a predetermined outcome in mind.
McBride says she believes journalists, even citizen journalists, can have a perspective and be passionate about a subject, but still have to follow the story and the evidence. “If your goal is entertainment or to get people to stop eating meat or to influence public policy around abortion, then you tend to select information in your reporting that can distort the truth [of your report.]" Work produced by activists cannot be esteemed or defended in the same way as works of journalism.
Indeed a number of media ethics pieces posted at the Poynter Institutes website, some dating back many years, track the moral hazards of hidden camera work. One even offers this prescient warning: "If you turn the hidden cameras over to a non-journalist, you are running a phenomenal risk. Meat cutters, patients, high school students, and home buyers are not trained in the art of journalistic observation. They are not qualified to do our jobs. They should not be entrusted with our tools. Furthermore, non-journalists may have vested interests in the story or personal motivations that directly conflict with the role of reporting and the standards of professionalism."
McBride acknowledges an “undercurrent of glee” in the media coverage of the indictments against C.M.P. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with abortion coverage,” McBride says. “I think it has to do with [highlighting] bad journalism.”
Few professions have been treated with as much public contempt of late, she says. Journalists are readily deplored by the public as “sleazy” or unethical, “painted with a broad brush, when a lot of times it’s the outliers” who engage in questionable practices.
“The [erroneous] narrative that gets told about journalists reflects the tactics that these individuals used to do their work," McBride argues. "In this case all of their tactics were sleazy and they’re claiming to be journalists and claiming to be following standards of the industry, but that’s not true.” She thinks that may partly explain the eagerness of mainstream media to highlight the C.M.P.’s practices and the turnabout in its fortunes. "It's odd that this happened at a grand jury," she allows, "but sort of a vindication that this would be wrong for anybody."
In the end, the C.M.P. saga in the public's imagination may leave a more lasting impression about the pro-life movement than the state of American journalism. “If I were a person trying to change public policy about abortion, I would be really mad,” McBride says, “because [C.M.P.’s tactics] makes it seem like the entire movement is an ends-justifies-the-means kind of movement.”