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Deceit and Fake Journalism: Beware, You’re Always on the Record

By Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications

Use gruesome video on the air or not? Name a suicide victim? Grant a silhouette interview and anonymity to a nervous informant? I found myself smack in the middle of innumerable heated ethical discussions – and sometimes knock-down-drag-out fights — over ethical issues throughout my 20-plus years managing TV newsrooms.

But never, and I mean never, did we entertain the idea of misrepresenting ourselves with hidden cameras to conduct a “gotcha” interview.

Accuracy in Media (AIM), a conservative media watchdog group, has embarked on an ethically questionable undercover campaign, gleefully hoodwinking school officials into controversial “gotcha” curriculum conversations, all the while rolling hidden cameras.  It then plasters its website with high-volume, politically charged claims that school districts surreptitiously teach critical race theory (CRT) –  a concept that explores whether racism and other prejudices are embedded in this country’s legal systems and laws. (CRT is typically taught in college or graduate level courses).

Here’s the ruse: AIM sends a young man and woman posing as parents moving into a district under the false pretense that they want to place their elementary age child in a school that teaches CRT. They roll a hidden camera and bait school officials into talking about anything the school does related to teaching “anti-racism.” AIM then publishes web stories using any soundbites remotely construed as condoning or teaching CRT.

Kettering City School  District, near Dayton, was one of four Ohio school districts known to be targeted by the AIM ploy. A Kettering spokesperson told the Dayton Daily News that AIM used “…only the parts and pieces of the conversation that served their purpose and furthered their agenda.”

According to a WSYX-TV/ABC report, AIM “has already exposed instances of school officials allegedly bucking state laws targeting critical race theory and similar topics in Iowa, Idaho and Tennessee.” AIM’s president told the Dayton Daily News that the issue is “an ongoing investigation” and that he would “rather not give away the tactics of our undercover journalists.”

Ethical journalists bristle at these sorts of covert shenanigans. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics advises journalists to “never deliberately distort facts or context,” and to “…avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

AIM might push back that it must use sub rosa tactics to ferret out CRT-teaching zealots operating surreptitiously in publicly funded schools. We must assume its covert campaign will continue.

So, how can school officials protect themselves?

  • Prepare a fact sheet for parents transparently detailing what the school district teaches – and does not teach – about diversity, equity and inclusion. Provide this to parents wanting to meet about new enrollments, or to any inquiries about district curriculum. Stick unwaveringly to the points on the fact sheet when answering questions.
  • Assume you are being recorded. Everyone has a smart phone that can record audio and video. Anyone can buy a pair of glasses or other unassuming devices embedded with a micro camera. Whenever you talk about your school, you are on the record.
  • Prepare talking points for district leadership, teachers and public-facing administrative staff so everyone consistently delivers district messages.
  • Get media training for district leadership, teachers and public-facing administrative staff. The best way to prepare for media – and hidden camera – interviews is to rehearse your talking points aloud in mock interviews.

Sound extreme? It is. We are living in times of extreme political ideologies unleashed by the incessant battle cry of troll forces on social media. I can remember, during my own school board candidacy in the 1990s, school officials chronically bemoaning the fact that the community never attended school board meetings and had no interest in news from their district.

Those days are long, long gone.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


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