How far is too far in pushing a source for answers?

Isaiah Singleton | SizingUpSouth.com correspondent

Journalists could go too far in reporting if they are unclear of the thin balance between assertive reporting and ambush interviews, experts said.

An ambush is a situational judgement making it hard to set specific rules, said Frank LoMonte, director and professor of the University of Florida Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

“A lot would depend on whether a person of great importance is prominent or not,” LoMonte said.

Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary film, “Roger & Me,” depicted the filmmaker tracking down the chief executive officer of General Motors. Moore got creative.

“He engaged in all kinds of ambush journalism techniques,” LoMonte said. 

When a journalist tries to get in contact or interview someone and the individual continues to dodge them, ambush journalism becomes defensible, LoMonte said.

To determine if ambush journalism is ethical or unethical in a given situation depends on how serious the story is, LoMonte said.

“If it’s somebody who’s been plotting an international money laundering operation, it’s much more important you get the person on camera than if they just used some expired deli meat,” he said.

Ciara Frisbie at the 2019 Gracies Awards – supplied photo

Showing up and sticking a mic in someone’s face and being intrusive can be an ambush, said Ciara Frisbie, digital episodic investigative reporter at 11Alive-WXIA in Atlanta, Georgia.

No one so far has told Frisbie to go away, she said.

“It’s a little bit different for me per se, you know I’m not in the turn and burn and the daily grind as some journalists are, especially in daily news trying to get breaking news out there,” Frisbie  said.

“I think you are definitely crossing a line if it doesn’t feel right. If you, instinctively and intuitively, know that it doesn’t feel right to you or even questionable, you shouldn’t probably do it.”

Ciara Frisbie, investigative reporter for 11Alive WXIA-TV, Atlanta

“If it is a private property — it’s a private property,  and you don’t necessarily have any business being there,” she said.

Frisbie also said if the situation was in a public space, then she might argue her rights as a journalist.

“There are rules and regulations for where journalists can and can’t be,” she said. “When it comes to private properties, it’s a blurred line and you must know your boundaries. I think when in doubt, it’s always best to talk to your executive producers, news managers, and the attorneys who work for the station before you make the decision to end up on somebody’s doorstep or private residents before you do anything like ambush journalism.” 

Ambush journalism gives reporters a bad name in a time when many people don’t like the media, Frisbie said.

Jessica Sparks

Journalists should act professional and ethical, said Jessica Sparks, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Savannah State University in Georgia. Sparks is also a freelance journalist.

“The journalists shouldn’t just barge in somewhere and interview random employees,” Sparks said.

“Usually in private businesses, they have the right to tell you they do not want you filming in their building. Outside is a different story, but inside is theirs.”

Jessica Sparks, assistant professor of multimedia journalism, Savannah State University

Both legal and ethical issues are involved, LoMonte said.

Frank LoMonte

“When you’re gathering news inside somebody’s private business, the proprietors of that business gets to set the rules,” LoMonte said. “If they don’t want photojournalism going on inside of their business, they get to remove you just like they can remove you for any reason they want to such as if you had profanity on your T-shirt or not wearing shoes. The First Amendment doesn’t give you a right to insist on being able to remain on someone’s private property if you’re not wanted there.”. 

LoMonte tells journalists if they are told to leave, they have to leave, he said.

“You don’t get to demand to stay,” LoMonte said. “You should politely excuse yourself and then try to get the information some other way. Ethically, I don’t think you could justify doing an ambush interview of the person who happens to be standing at the front desk of a restaurant. They are not the people who set the policies, and there’s every chance that they are the least senior, experienced people in the entire place.”

Journalists should be courteous to people, LoMonte said.

“If the story they’re doing is so important that they think trespassing is validated, more power to them, but when you can do the story without that, you should go another route.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director, Brechner Center for Freedom of Information

“One thing that all journalists should always keep in mind while going into the field is that your rights aren’t any better than any other members of the public,” he said. “Having a press pass or credential is not a license to break the law, trespass, invade privacy, or break any other laws that apply to ordinary citizens.”

Isaiah Singleton

Isaiah Singleton is a freelance correspondent for SizingUpTheSouth.com and a recent graduate of Savannah State University majoring in journalism. To contact Singleton email him at isaiahdsingleton@gmail.com

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