Blog: Undercover Panhandle Story Missed the Mark
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.”
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 best way to understand someone is not to pretend to be like them for a few hours, it’s to actually talk to them and make space for their voices.
— Heather Bryant (@HBCompass) November 10, 2020
An old problem
- Nieman Lab: Low-income people aren’t getting quality news and information. What can the industry do about it?
- Broke in Philly: Language Guide for reporting on economic justice in the nation’s poorest big city
- Journalist’s Resource: Covering poverty: What to avoid and how to get it right
- Center for Health Journalism: Homelessness
- Heather Bryant: 102 story ideas to serve your community