Hidden cameras—by their very name—sound surreptitious, deceptive and the opposite of what journalism is supposed to stand for—transparency. But many journalists insist that hidden cameras are a legitimate investigate tool, not a gimmick of “gotcha journalism.” Associate editor Tamara Baluja reports—plus, check out a video on how hidden cameras are used at the CBC.

By Tamara Baluja, Associate Editor

Hidden cameras—by their very name—sound surreptitious, deceptive and the opposite of what journalism is supposed to stand for—transparency.

But journalists at the CBC, Global News and CTV insist a hidden camera is a legitimate tool of investigative journalism and note there are checks and balances in place to make sure its use does not lead to “gotcha journalism.”

“It’s not a toy,” said Laurie Few, executive producer of Global’s 16×9 investigative show. “It’s a very important journalistic tool and it’s not to be taken lightly.”

As the technology evolves and it becomes easier to shoot with hidden cameras, Few said journalists have to make sure they remain ethical in using them. That means all other avenues of getting at a story have been exhausted, and using a hidden camera is the only remaining option. At most newsrooms, the use of hidden cameras has to be vetted by senior management—at the CBC, that would be David Studer, director of journalism standards and practices—before the decision is made to use them in the field. It also has to be cleared with the outlet’s legal counsel.

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“There was definitely a fad for hidden cameras 20 to 30 years ago,” Studer told J-Source. “Back then, it was seen as a tool that would bring in audiences. But I think audiences know when they’re being manipulated … they can tell the difference between when the use of hidden camera is central to the story versus just window dressing.”

Once the news outlet has acquired hidden camera footage, it should give the person caught on-camera the opportunity to respond and explain his or her side of the story.

“That doesn’t mean you’ll get the interview, but you have to try in good faith,” Few said.

When CBC’s The National used hidden cameras in a two-part series about tax avoidance and moving money offshore, a viewer filed a complaint with the public broadcaster’s ombudsman. “You raised the very interesting question of whether investigative journalism by its very nature is in conflict with ethical journalism,” ombudsman Esther Enkin said in her review.

In a column published Journalism Ethics: A casebook of professional conduct for news media, Bob Steele wrote that there are absolutists who say a journalist should never deceive, no matter what is at stake.

“That, I suggest, is an unrealistic position that avoids the essence of ethical decision-making and ignores the unique and essential role journalists play in a democratic society,” he wrote. “Ethics involves making difficult choices when faced with competing values, conflicting principles and multiple stakeholders; ethical decision-making often involves choosing a course of action among several options that each carry negative consequences.”

Check out this video on how hidden cameras are used at CBC's Marketplace.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.