Gotcha journalism is a pejorative term used by media critics to describe interviewing methods that appear designed to entrap interviewees into making statements that are damaging or discreditable to their cause, character, integrity, or reputation. The term, which emerged in the run-up to the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election, is rooted in an assertion that the interviewer may be supporting a hidden agenda, and aims to make film or sound recordings of the interviewee which may be selectively edited, compiled, and broadcast or published in order to intentionally show the subject in an unfavorable light. The term derives from the word gotcha, a contracted form of "got you".
Techniques discussed here can be used to get a subject with something genuinely discreditable to hide to reveal wrongdoing; there can be a fine line between robust and gotcha journalism.
Some methods claimed to be gotcha journalism by those involved include moving away from the agreed upon topic of the interview and switching to an embarrassing subject that was agreed to be out-of-bounds and leading the interviewee to discuss it and commit to a certain answer, then, confronting them with prepared material designed to contradict or discredit that position. Gotcha journalism is often designed to keep the interviewee on the defensive by, for example, being required to explain some of their own statements taken out of context thus effectively preventing the interviewee from clearly presenting their position.
The intent of gotcha journalism is always premeditated and used to defame or discredit the interviewees by portraying them as self-contradictory, malevolent, unqualified, or immoral. This effect is also achieved by replaying selected quotes from public speeches and following with hand-picked footage or images that appear to reinforce negative images of the interviewee.
As an example of gotcha journalism, a city's mayor might give a speech in which he claims that during his tenure employment is at a record high in his city. A news outlet may replay that speech and follow up with footage of desperate men and women at the unemployment office, and perhaps even an interview in which the person is asked to comment on the mayor's speech. The interviewee in this case may be baited with questions that have very obvious answers such as, "The mayor says unemployment is a record low; how do you respond to that?"
Gotcha journalism may also be achieved by misleading an interviewee about which portions of his or her statements will be aired, or misleading the audience about how an expert opinion is acquired. For example, a special feature may be run on drug use in schools. To add sensationalism, an "expert" may be given manufactured statistics that imply that a three-fold increase in drug use is occurring in suburban schools, and asked to comment on what it might mean, if real. The expert may issue a statement such as, "If this were actually happening, this trend would be alarming – thank goodness it's not!" To discredit this expert, the whole clip may be aired, in which the reporter narrates, "We asked Dr. John Q. Smith to comment on drug use in schools" followed by the clip of this quote, in which it appears that Dr. Smith is in denial over drugs in school. Alternatively, if Dr. Smith's quote makes the case that the reporter wishes to have made, the narration might state, "We asked Dr. John Q. Smith what he thinks of the increase in drug use and he said," followed by the section of the clip in which Smith says, "this trend would be alarming."
Manipulation of quotes, images, and archive footage is typical in the editing process, especially for news magazines, and does not cross over into gotcha journalism until there is a deliberate attempt to mislead an interviewee, expert, or the audience. Most commonly this manifests by finding footage of exceptions to a generalization given by a speaker or interviewee. For example, in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina public officials stated that progress was being made. A number of news outlets transmitted these statements followed by footage of flooded homes, abandoned neighborhoods, and interviews with the many people still affected by the disaster. The officials may or may not have been lying, but showing some continuing problems does not prove lack of progress in general.
Gotcha journalism in the United States
In 1964, the pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254) ended most libel protection recourse for public figures in the United States effectively clearing the way for intrusive or adversarial reportage into the public or private affairs of public figures by news media outlets whether newspapers, TV or radio. Public figures could no longer sue for libel, regardless of the bias of news media, without proof that the media had acted maliciously.
- Two Cheers for Minority Government: The Evolution of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy By Peter H. Russell 2008 p167
- Be A Freelance Writer Surayud Chulanont Global Media ISBN 81-89940-33-3, ISBN 978-81-89940-33-1
- With Malice Toward All? Patricia Moy, Michael Pfau p43
- Bill Clinton – Nigel Hamilton p284
- 1999 Associated Press article archived at Jefferson City (MO) News Tribune
2004 spotlight article at macmillandictionary.com
2004 article at mikehersh.com
- 2005 article from San Francisco Chronicle
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