Screengrab from NBC2 report on panhandling

Nov. 13, 2020  

Blog: Undercover Panhandle Story Missed the Mark

Screengrab from NBC2 report on panhandling

How do you cover a marginalized group of people with empathy? For starters, you probably shouldn’t “dress up” as them.

But that’s exactly what happened in Panhandlers: Who are they and how much do they make? by a journalist at the Fort Myers Waterman Broadcasting station, NBC2.

The report is only the latest example of reporters contradicting guidelines like SPJ’s Code of Ethics in their approach covering a sensitive and complicated topic — which SPJ Florida’s leaders worry will continue to break the already fragile line of trust with news consumers.

“Watching this felt wrong,” said former Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee Chairwoman Lynn Walsh. Walsh has a background in investigative broadcast news. “The story took a very complicated issue (homelessness) but barely scraped the surface on covering one aspect of it.

“As journalists, we have a role to provide information to the public but we also have a responsibility to do so respectfully,” she added.

We reached out to the news station and the reporter, but did not receive a response or opportunity to discuss the thinking or intent behind the report. So we asked experts in journalism ethics about what we can learn from this incident.

What’s the story?

In the four-minute spot and accompanying write-up, reporter Evan Dean notes an increase in local panhandling since the start of the pandemic.

“Who are these people? What’s it like to be on the streets begging for money? And how much are the panhandlers actually making?” Dean says, “As an NBC2 Investigator, I went undercover to find out.”

Dean, proceeds to “dress up” as a panhandler with a cardboard sign that says “ANYTHING HELPS,” while collecting money under false pretenses.

We’re disappointed because there are ethical ways to report on Florida’s homeless community and the topic of panhandling in general — but this wasn’t it. On Twitter, one journalist called the segment “poverty porn.”

“The reporter was only upfront and honest about his reporting role with sources that were featured in the story after he had already collected money from them for a charity that they did not sign-off on when they gave him the money initially,” said SPJ Ethics Committee Chairwoman Danielle McLean. “By donating money he collected while reporting the story for a charity that acts as a source in the piece, I would argue he is entering an advocacy role.”

After the story ran, the station tweeted a photo of the thank you letter Dean received in exchange for donating the money he collected while undercover to the Lee County Homeless Coalition — a move SPJ Florida President Emily Bloch describes as a “pat on the back.”

“While the reporter says he is not lying about what was written on the sign, he was naive to ignore the implied message,” McLean said. “The sign was purposely misleading to make people think he is homeless and that is the reason why people gave him money. He is not correcting the assumption, which he knows is true.”

Ultimately, Dean only identified himself as a reporter to people he had the opportunity to interview. But he only interviewed two people collecting money themselves.

“It seemed to disregard all the other complications that come along with being homeless,” Walsh said. “I also think this story could have been done without going undercover. The journalists could have built a relationship with the individuals he met and followed them around for an entire day and week, which would have painted a much more representative view of the reality of being homeless.”

In a letter sent to management, SPJ Florida President Bloch and Student Representative Jordan Lewis note the lack of sensitivity used in Dean’s reporting when asking about why people collecting money “don’t get a real job.”

“As journalists, our responsibility is to gain trust from our readers,” Bloch said. “False pretense reporting like this — especially from a white or white-passing reporter on a subject that so obviously impacts BIPOC communities harder than white communities — hurts those efforts.”

In coordination with the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, we collectively had questions for Dean and his supervisors, including how this story premise came about and what sort of feedback the station has received since the segment aired.

But Dean, along with NBC2’s Executive News Director Darrel Lieze-Adams and the station’s Programming Director Deborah Abbott, all declined to comment despite multiple attempts from SPJ Florida to hear their side of the story.

The issue of ethics

In a letter to the Dean, Lieze-Adams and Abbott, Lewis and Bloch pointed out the ethical issues we found with the story, which is still up in its original form online.

As a group of Florida journalists, we’re disappointed that the station’s leadership wasn’t willing to start a dialogue about this. Especially when we could have suggested ways to improve coverage of the delicate and nuanced subject of panhandling and homelessness in Florida.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics advises journalists to “avoid going undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

For that reason, we want to know if Dean and NBC2 attempted to do this story without going undercover first.

“Did they even try to shadow someone who was asking for money before going undercover as one?” Walsh asked. “I would hope they at least considered that as an option.”

On Twitter, Dean’s story received criticism for failing to humanize the very people he set out to spotlight.  


“[The reporter] simply referred to [the people collecting money] as panhandlers, almost as if they were not real people,” McLean said. “The reporter oversimplified a complicated issue of homelessness and barely scraped the surface about why someone might be in that situation. Also, I think the story was missing some key context that he is (assumedly) a financially secure white man doing the panhandling and not someone from an underprivileged race, gender, religion, ability, or identity.”


SPJ Florida requested NBC2’s demographic report but has not received a response.

An old problem

Of course, this isn’t the first time a story about homelessness has been told this way: A quick Google search reveals dozens of broadcast segments under the same tired concept, “going undercover as a panhandler.”


“I feel as if (people asking for money) are not necessarily portrayed as real people, it’s almost like they are portrayed as ‘things’ to be talked about,” Walsh said.


She added, “I don’t think that was the intent of the journalist, but by calling it an investigation and then trying to recreate what it’s like to ask for money on the corner of road, made it seem like it wasn’t a very serious and real issue people deal with. Again, I don’t think this was the news org’s intention, but sometimes you have to trust your instincts.”


In the end, we believe this is a discussion worth having because stories like these can erode the already-tenuous relationship communities have with journalists.


“Trust and perception is a fragile issue when it comes to helping the homeless and there is already a great deal of skepticism when it comes to believing their plight,” McLean said. “The reporter broadcasted to the public that he lied through omission who he was. That could affect people’s trust and perception of people who are homeless and their willingness to help.”


Below are resources for journalists on how to cover poverty and economic justice ethically. (h/t to journalist Heather Bryant for contributing to this list).


1 Comment

  • Ron Rodgers says:

    Reporter probably read too much Nellie Bly (Ten Days in a Mad-House) George Orwell (The Spike) Jack London (The People of the Abyss) Marvell Cooke (The Bronx Slave Market) Stephen Crane (An Experiment in Misery) & John Howard Griffith (Black Like Me)

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