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Opinion: The Planned Parenthood Videos and Ethical Reporting

The "citizen journalists" behind the controversial tapes want First Amendment protection. They can't have it.

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Journalism isn’t rocket science. Nor is it law, medicine, or any other field that requires specific credentials to practice it. Many reporters have a journalism degree; some don’t. All you really need to get into journalism is a strong sense of curiosity, decent writing skills (a few too many of us don’t even have that), and a commitment to finding the truth.

The basic rules of ethical journalism aren’t very complex, but they are well established. Among them is objectivity, even though the meaning of this is often misconstrued. Objectivity, at its most basic, simply means being fair.

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Journalists “take an angle” on stories all the time, because we’re human beings who have opinions or hunches about things, and because this profession pays us to have them. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. The inflammatory series of videos about Planned Parenthood that blew up over the past year is a journalism 101 case study showcasing the wrong way.

This week, a grand jury in Texas (of all places) not only cleared a local Planned Parenthood chapter of any wrongdoing, it indicted two of the videos’ producers, charging them with tampering with a governmental record, which is a felony, and with the ”prohibition of the purchase and sale of human organs,” which is a misdemeanor.

The charges arose because the producers allegedly falsified California driver’s licenses in order to pass themselves off as biotechnology executives who then secretly recorded meetings with Planned Parenthood officials in several states, including Colorado. Their “angle” was to prove that the national women’s health care provider is profiting off the sale of fetal tissue, which would be illegal. To make their case, the producers heavily edited the footage they’d gathered, and included images in the finished product that came from unrelated sources but helped make the videos even more controversial.

The videos caused the political firestorm that these producers obviously desired, prompting renewed calls from pro-life politicians to investigate and defund Planned Parenthood, the single largest provider of reproductive health services in the U.S. Even after it was uncovered that the videos had been so thoroughly doctored that they’re essentially a hoax, Planned Parenthood has remained in the crosshairs of the pro-life community. That metaphor turned tragically real this past November, when Robert Dear killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. After being apprehended, among the things he reportedly told police was, “no more baby parts.”

Despite the fact that a dozen states, including Texas, have found no evidence of criminal conduct from Planned Parenthood, and eight others didn’t see enough indications of wrongdoing to warrant further investigation, the issue continues to contaminate our political discourse. Some of the GOP presidential candidates have distanced themselves from the videos, but several are still treating them as the gospel truth. Pro-life forces in Congress have vowed to continue investigating Planned Parenthood throughout 2016, dearth of evidence be damned. (In a telling move, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) said this week that the special committee convened to investigate the organization, called the Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives, won’t complete its probe until December, which means that even if it turns up nothing, it still can be used to gin up pro-life hysteria through Election Day.)

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Here in Colorado, state Representative JoAnn Windholz (R-Commerce City) threw herself into the fire after the murders with a Facebook post (since deleted) that blamed Planned Parenthood for bringing the violence upon itself. Her words prompted a petition calling for her resignation that, as of this week, had gathered some 63,000 signatures.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO-6) also cited the videos, even after they’d been widely discredited, as well as his “conscience,” for his vote this past October to defund Planned Parenthood. Coffman previously used the Planned Parenthood logo in one of his campaign ads during the 2014 campaign in an attempt to promote himself as a supporter of women’s issues. (Coffman is walking this rhetorical—some would say hypocritical—tightrope because he’s facing a tough re-election fight against former state senate president Morgan Carroll in a district that was redrawn after the 2010 census in a way that doesn’t help Republicans.)

Meanwhile, the videos’ producers are attempting to seek refuge behind the First Amendment by claiming that they were merely employing common “investigative reporting” techniques. This continues the grand conservative tradition of championing the First Amendment when it suits their aims—see: the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decisions—and ignoring it when it doesn’t—say, when a group of Muslims want to build a mosque.

Like the videos they manufactured, the producers’ contention that they were merely following standard journalistic practices is utter nonsense. Reporters concealing their identities in order to get the story they seek is, and always will be, a controversial method so fraught with ethical peril that most reputable news organizations won’t allow it.

Reporters have plenty of resources at their disposal to find the information they seek. They can find a whistleblower or file FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. They can talk to sources on background or off the record, then try to verify whatever they’ve learned with other, more public sources. They can report around a story, interviewing those who can get them closer to the truth even if the central character(s) of the story won’t cooperate. If they still can’t find what they seek—whatever their angle might be—it either means that they haven’t discovered a way in yet, or that the story they thought they were pursuing isn’t what they expected. In this particular case, these self-proclaimed “citizen journalists” violated just about every ethical standard an actual journalist must follow every day.

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If he were so inclined, a skilled video editor could make Ronald Reagan look like the grand marshal of the gay pride parade. That doesn’t make it true, and that doesn’t make it journalism. We reporters will occasionally make mistakes, but real journalists acknowledge and correct them and then try to do better next time. We’re happy to be held to a higher ethical standard because it helps maintain public trust in the free press, an elemental and indispensible component of any democracy.

A crucial part of our job also involves holding certain people—such as politicians, religious and business leaders, police, attorneys and judges—to those same lofty standards. The people who produced these videos have no place in the journalistic community, and elected officials who continue to cite the videos as rationale for certain policy decisions are similarly failing to meet the ethical standards all citizens should expect and demand from their leaders.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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