Smile for the camera!
Or, if you do it right, they won’t even know it’s there.
Friday afternoon, a standing room only crowd of IRE members filled Salon J to learn how to “do it right.” Hidden cameras can be a tricky subject, but journalists Joel Grover (Investigative Reporter, KNBC), Cindi Galli (Producer, ABC News Brian Ross Unit) and Robert Powell (Supervising Investigating Producer, The Today Show) shared some of the knowledge they’ve gained after years of investigative reporting.
At the beginning of her presentation, Galli issued a simple but vital reminder: a hidden camera is a “serious tool,” and all footage you shoot could later become discoverable material.
“We use it so often, sometimes we become a little cavalier about it,” she said. With each story, she recommends asking yourself: is this a story that really needs a hidden camera? Is there another way to do it?
“If it’s just a gimmick, find another way,” Galli said.
Once you establish the need for a hidden camera, KNBC’s Joel Grover said it is important to be transparent with your viewers. Bring them into the process. Using his station’s recent report on Jiffy Lube scams as an example, Grover walked us through the process of wiring a car with five hidden cameras. The footage was used to catch workers charging for repairs that were never completed.
In addition to the story itself, Grover and his team produced a separate, web-only piece that detailed the process for wiring the car. The piece, less than 1:30 in length, was a step-by-step video: Grover introduced the station engineer and narrated as the engineer installed each camera, explaining what each angle showed and why it was necessary to the story.
“Viewers love to be part of the story,” Grover said. “It lets them know you didn’t do anything illegal or unethical.”
(Not to mention adding an exclusive web component to the story. I can hear the cheers from the web department now!)
Another tip from Grover: make sure you cover yourself in case a camera malfunctions.
“If it’s a real important angle, we want to double shoot it,” Grover said. In the Jiffy Lube story, his team decided the most important footage would come from the hidden camera on the “customer,” so they double wired her. And it’s a good thing they did, Grover said: the first camera malfunctioned.
ABC’s Galli also harped on the importance of having a backup plan, using a hilarious video of “Inside Edition” outtakes to show what went wrong and how they recovered.
One story required wiring a house to catch a salesman scamming an elderly lady. In the middle of the surveillance, a windstorm knocked out power to the entire neighborhood – including the electricity powering many of their hidden cameras. Thinking quickly, one of the producers (monitoring from a back room) came out posing as the woman’s grandson, flipped the breaker to restore power, and went back to the control room.
Other tips from Galli:
—never lay the camera out of your reach
—know if you will come in physical contact with someone who might detect your camera. Will you be patted down? Go through security? Hug someone?
—Be prepared: know what you’ll say if someone throws you an unexpected question. How will you manage that balance between remaining truthful but not outing yourself? Rehearse different scenarios, but be prepared to think on your feet.
—Keep your own account of everything, don’t rely on the camera to catch everything. Watch for yourself.
—Pay attention to your entire surroundings, not just the story’s target or the person wearing the wire.
Today show investigative producer Robert Powell offered a solution for journalists living in all-party states: figure out a way to have the camera out in the open. He highlighted a recent Rossen Reports segment investigating handicapped tour guides giving Disneyland and Disney World helping families skip lines. Because both California and Florida are two-party states, the producer and his family, posing as tourists, shot the entire thing as they would a home movie, with a camcorder out in the open.
All three panelists stressed the importance of having open, honest conversations with your company’s attorneys, reviewing all the video and remembering that everything shot can eventually come out into the open (i.e. don’t high-five each other on the great material you got until the camera is OFF! – Robert Powell)
Cindi Galli summarized it best: “it is much better to raise your hand on the front end, before a piece ends, than to duck under your desk after the piece airs.”
—Blayne Alexander, WXIA