Saturday, November 30, 2013

The ethics of ambush journalism

The Mark Driscoll/Janet Mefferd kerfuffle continues apace. Mefferd has been criticized on a couple of grounds:

i) One criticism is that she was mean to Driscoll. All I can say is that given Driscoll's carefully cultivated he-man image, I don't think his supports do him any favors by suggesting he was bullied by a woman. 

ii) Another criticism is that she's motivated to spike ratings. That's a plausible accusation–but it's also a red herring.

iii) Yet another criticism is that she ambushed him by springing a series of hostile, unexpected questions on him. Indeed, the whole interview was staged as a pretext to put him on the spot. And this does, indeed, raise an issue regarding the ethics of ambush journalism. I don't think there's a uniform answer on whether that's right or wrong.

On the one hand, interviewees naturally prefer softball interviews. If they knew ahead of time that they were going to be peppered with embarrassing or incriminating questions, they'd never submit to the interview in the first place. So it poses a dilemma for a journalist. If an interviewee knows what to expect, he can come forearmed with prepared answers which deflect the questions. Or he can avoid that reporter entirely. Yet some interviewees ought to be exposed. They are used to evading public scrutiny. They are using to playing to sympathetic venues. 

Mike Wallace was the godfather of ambush journalism. I once saw him catch John Connally, a presidential aspirant, in a blatant lie on live, national television. Connally feigned indignation, but the damage was done–and deservedly so. 

On the other hand, ambush journalism is a poor way to elicit information. Indeed, that's not really the point. Ambush journalism can be unfair in the sense that a reporter will ask the guest a question about something he allegedly said or wrote 20 years ago. He probably doesn't remember what he said or wrote 20 years ago. Since he had no lead-time to review the record, he can't explain or defend his alleged statement. 

On the one hand, I've seen interviewees give inaccurate answers to questions. But because the reporter didn't expect the answer, the reporter was in no position to disprove the answer. It's a day later that the reporter says we investigated the answer and it turns out that the answer was false. 

On the other hand, I've seen interviewers falsely attribute a statement to the guest, or quote the statement out of context. But because the guest didn't expect the question, the guest was in no position to disprove the allegation. It's a day later that the guest can set the record straight. But by then it's too late. What viewers remember is the interview, not the correction or retraction. 

If the guest can't anticipate the question, that puts the reporter at a tactical advantage and the guest at a tactical disadvantage. Conversely, if the reporter can't anticipate the answer, that puts the guest at a tactical advantage and the reporter at a tactical disadvantage. 

Driscoll's critics say an honest guest has nothing to hide, nothing to fear from a tough interview. But that's simplistic. An honest guest may not have that detailed information at his fingertips.

Ambush journalism is ethical if the guest is a guilty and the journalist is accurate. Ambush journalism is unethical if the guest is innocent and the reporter is inaccurate. There's nothing wrong with making a bad guy look bad. But bad reporters can make good guys look bad. So it all depends. 


  1. "Driscoll's critics say an honest guest has nothing to hide, nothing to fear from a tough interview." - Totally false. One might not commit murder but if everyone thinks that person did it, that person my in fact become very nervous. Of course because they become emotionally broken it's proof to everyone that he/she's guilty.

    Most of us have something in our past that we're ashamed of. And even if we don't, most of us don't like people probing around hoping to find something.

  2. Steve, it's hard for me to understand why journalists are so hot headed regarding plagiarism. I can see it if a whole thesis is a copy or major componenets, but small snippets and small points seem like they should be treated differently. After all ever other crime is judged by it's weight. That's how I felt about Randal's complaint about Alister Mcgrath.

  3. Headline: Celebrity theologian denounces celebrity pastors by quoting celebrity bloggers.

    1. As Mae West used to say, Better to be looked over than overlooked.

    2. Can't miss with some cheeky British humor. Americans eat that up!