It Stings: The Ethics of Exposing ACORN

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I’ve been thinking a fair amount about ethics lately, and not just because I’m studying for the APR exam. The national health care debate is fraught with distortions of fact and fear mongering. I’m working on a political campaign in Virginia wherein the opponent is revising history about his previous public position on the Virginia Assembly special session to restore the Commonwealth’s ability to successfully prosecute DUI and felony drug cases in light of a Supreme Court decision. How can he do that in good conscious?  Oh, it’s just politics as usual.

But let’s consider Andrew Breitbart’s (www.BigGovernment.com) handling of the video sting and PR assault on ACORN. In the blurry intersections of opinion journalism and advocacy PR, Breitbart combined the principals of investigative reporting with the strategies and tactics of a PR campaign. The PRSA Code of Ethics values honesty (hopefully an explanation is not required), fairness (dealing fairly with publics and the media while respecting free speech), advocacy (serving the public interest to aid informed debate) and competition (delivering choice). This is not the complete list of values or provisions of the code but representative.

In the days of well-funded newsrooms, investigative reporters took pride in the responsibility to uncover abuses of government-funded programs. Breitbart and many others, however, felt the media had turned sideways to avoid reporting critically and aggressively on accusations against ACORN and its involvement in voter fraud, advancing a political agenda using government money and other transgressions.

Breitbart understands that in today’s Web 2.0 environment, the media are only one of many channels available to raise awareness and stimulate public dialogue. He and his team of undercover reporters, an aspiring filmmaker and a 20-year old woman, devised a video strategy to shed light on corrupt practices inside ACORN. They posed as a pimp and a prostitute asking for advice on setting up a prostitution business – and video taped the response. Unless you were on an extreme adventure vacation, you know what happened next.

The video strategy, posting the videos one at a time on the Web, was coupled with a media relations strategy involving exclusives to FOX News and local newspapers. Timing was also critical to the plan. They met with ACORN staff in several cities, and five videos of the interactions were distributed over several days, helping maintain momentum. Not only did the videos go viral on the Internet, cable and network news now had no choice other than to cover the story. Congress voted to cease funding. ACORN’s credibility and its long-term survival were severely damaged.

ACORN has filed a lawsuit in Baltimore, MD, against the filmmakers for failing to secure consent to video or audiotape the consultations, which raises many legal questions. But was the “sting” ethical? I wouldn’t advocate for such a strategy to discredit a competitor. It is unethical behavior.

However, in the context of citizen journalism, were Breitbart and his colleagues acting in the public interest? They claim yes.  In fact, understanding the sound bite constraints of TV, Breitbart posted the videos in their entirety on his Web site along with transcripts. (See exclusives at www.biggovernment.com.)

The videos exposed an unsavory abuse of power – or at the very least an embarrassing ignorance of employees who think it’s acceptable to provide guidance on how to avoid the law. The responsibility to report on issues critical to the public interest is a responsibility of the press that too often seems to be superseded by the pressure to cover the latest emotional story of the day (e.g. “balloon boy,” Michael Jackson’s funeral).

Pack journalism in the days of shrinking newsrooms and red ink challenge the ability of traditional media to report on a wider diversity of public interest issues. Initiatives like BigGovernment.com deliver choice and an alternative for those interested in viewpoints not available in mainstream media.

The sting uncovered a significant abuse of taxpayer funds. However, the means in this instance are suspect and from a PR perspective, unethical.


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