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Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller

Posted: February 7, 2011 05:34 PM

As a Christian, a pro-lifer and a journalist, I'm ambivalent about the Planned Parenthood hidden camera sting that was perpetrated here in central New Jersey and reported sporadically by news outlets last week. The California based anti-abortion activist group Live Action sent two actors into a clinic posing as sex traffickers and recorded an employee doling out unethical, dangerous, and illegal advice that would keep the duo in business.

As a Christian I'm uncomfortable with both the failure of the office worker to report the couple to authorities and the entrapment of her by the activists. When is it appropriate to lie? The biblical stories of the midwives who refused to kill male infants as commanded by Egypt's pharaoh and Rahab's deception that saved Jewish spies in Jericho both seem to affirm lying when it's done to save lives, but I question whether or not any lives will be saved as a result of this action.

As a pro-lifer, I doubt this kind of activism ultimately advances the goal of reducing abortion. On one hand, undeniable truth is exposed. On the other, the bad will it inspires is a serious blow to the common ground efforts that I believe hold the best hope of actually bringing down the abortion rate in the United States. Also, as pro-lifer Rachael Laramore writes at Slate,

Planned Parenthood should be responsible for the actions of its employees. It should at least be held to the same standards that the left wants crisis-pregnancy centers held to -- no false advertising, no erroneous medical information. But it's extremely unlikely that there are multitudes of men walking into Planned Parenthood trying to get cheap abortions for their sex workers. And the young women who count on the group's cheap birth control will be the ones who are harmed if Planned Parenthood loses its federal funding.

As a journalist, I'm ambivalent about the use of hidden cameras and deception. At the journalism resource Poynter.org, several articles address the ethical problems inherent in using deception to reveal truth. When it comes to using hidden cameras, an article by Bob Steele offers the following factors to consider:

The Importance Threshold:

Since we are in the business of pursuing truth, there is more than a hint of hypocrisy when we use some form of deceit to pursue the truth. We can only justify that inconsistency and the use of deception when we truly serve a greater principle, such as pursuing a highly important and otherwise elusive truth. Therein lies the first standard for deciding when it is appropriate to use hidden cameras. To justify deception we must be pursuing exceptionally important information. It must be of vital public interest, such as preventing profound harm to individuals or revealing great system failure.

Tools of Last Resort:

This covert method of newsgathering amplifies any accusations we make. We must insure that the tone and emphasis of hidden camera video meet standards for factual accuracy and contextual authenticity.

Trinagulate & Test Assumptions:

We must devote enough resources, time and attention to gather the right facts and make sure our facts are right. We must supplement the surreptitious video with insightful observations, seeing and retaining important details of a scene that might not be captured by the camera.

Know and Respect the Law:

We must pay close attention to the legal land mines in hidden camera reporting. Stations must develop sound strategies that recognize matters of defamation and privacy, including false light and intrusion torts. We can be vigorous in our reporting if we are clear on the law regarding fraud, trespass and surreptitious recording of audio. The law appropriately protects citizens. We should honor the law while also responsibly serving the public.

Live Action's amateur investigative work meets the Importance Threshold in my opinion, but I'm not sure it meets the other three criteria. A quick search of the bios on its website reveals that no one on the leadership team has journalistic training. Their success causes me to not only question the veracity and ethics of the work, it makes me lament the fact that more professionals aren't doing excellent, unbiased reporting like this from ProPublica's Marian Wang.

In the New Jersey case, the first outcome is that one woman lost her job. While she seems incredibly callous in the video, I assume that hers is a tragically misguided attempt to minimize the consequences of sex trafficking on underage girls who are beyond her reach, or as a commenter at GetReligion suggests, perhaps to get them into the clinic away from the pimps so that they can be helped.

Hidden camera video doesn't reveal what is in a person's mind and I don't believe this is a singular story. The woman identified in the video as Amy Woodruff is culpable for her actions, but she has also become a convenient scapegoat. It's understandable that pro-life activists wouldn't be interested in what it means for Woodruff's family for her to lose a job they believe is immoral, but as a Christian I am concerned about the harm that was done to them in the name of the cause.

*Update: Three additional videos have been released from clinics in Virginia.

 

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