Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

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Participate in on our online straw poll below!

Should a Chronicle reporter and photographer have pretended to be homeless to observe conditions in a San Francisco shelter with a reputation for violence, theft and drug use?

The Chronicle stayed two nights.

Consider yourself the executive editor.

The problem of homelessness has progressively worsened in San Francisco for at least a generation, and two candidates for mayor are trading charges of being insensitive or ineffectual on the issue.

The Chronicle wants to show, among other things, a clear and compelling view of the inside of the homeless shelter with the worst reputation, Multi-Service Center South, believed by homeless people themselves to be "the toughest of San Francisco's emergency shelters, a filthy, violent drug den where everything not tied down is stolen."

If the paper approaches the city with a request to observe the shelter, the managers might clean up the place and put extra attendants on duty, making sure no one fights, smokes crack or experiences a psychotic breakdown in public view. You want to expose the problems you've heard about, but going in undercover is inherently deceptive.

What do you do?

We’ve assembled two opposing arguments on the issue. Take a look at both to get a handle on the journalism issues, then think about how you’d make the call. When you’ve decided, click on our on-line straw poll below, and find out how others voted. Then check out how editors across the Bay Area say they would have handled the story. Ready?

Don't Deceive!

How would you feel if you were homeless and the guy on the cot next to you, in whom you confided about your drug history, turned out to be a reporter? How would you feel if you were an employee at a homeless shelter and your off-the-cuff smart-aleck responses to questions got splashed across the front page of the newspaper?

A general principle of many news media, including the Chronicle, holds that reporters should identify themselves as journalists when gathering information for stories.

People have a right to know when they are talking to an individual and when they are speaking for a permanent record and their words may be published for hundreds of thousands to read.

This principle applies particularly to sources who are private individuals and unused to responding to the media.

Many of the residents of homeless shelters have substance abuse problems or mental illness. They are among the most vulnerable people in any community. Reporters should exercise extreme caution when interviewing them so as not to exploit their mental state for the purposes of public scrutiny or even ridicule. The last thing they should be doing is interviewing such people without identifying themselves first as reporters.

The Chronicle's code of ethics lists three tests to be met before editors permit reporters to avoid identifying themselves as a journalists:

  • "Public importance: Is the resulting news story or photograph of such vital public interest that its news value outweighs the potential damage to trust and credibility?"
  • "Alternatives: Can the story be recast to avoid the need not to disclose one's identity in gathering the information?"
  • "Last resort: Have all other reasonable means of getting the story been exhausted?"

How a tax-payer supported shelter, with a reputation for violence and tolerance of drugs and theft, operates can certainly be considered a vital public interest.

But there are other ways of getting the story. Reporters usually aren't present for crimes. They rely on reports of witnesses and officials. Both were readily available in the case of the shelter. All that was gained by smuggling in a reporter and photographer was lurid detail useful in selling newspapers, but not necessary to revealing the facts.

Whenever a newspaper deceives people, it sacrifices its most important characteristic -- its credibility. What does it say about the honesty of a news report if it was acquired by dishonest means?

Sleuth it!

Undercover reporting is a time-honored practice for newspapers, magazines and television stations. Not infrequently, the result has been the kind of compelling reports that rally public support for reform.

In this case the deception -- a reporter and photographer passing themselves off as homeless -- was minor and passive. The journalists did not have to lie to get in for the night. The meals they received were far from cordon bleu and the accommodations wouldn't rate any stars from Michelin or Frommers.

Let's apply the Chronicle code of ethics' three tests for undercover approval:

  • "Is the resulting news story or photograph of such vital public interest that its news value outweighs the potential damage to trust and credibility?"
  • "Can the story be recast to avoid the need not to disclose one's identity in gathering the information?"
  • "Have all other reasonable means of getting the story been exhausted?"

The public importance is clear. There is something broken about how the city addresses homelessness, and the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends on them is not solving the problem. People say they sleep outside, in squalor, rather than enter this threatening place.

Reporters could interview men as they came out of the shelter without deception. But the reports would be second-hand and subject to the distortion of each interviewee's personal filters. Given the high proportion of drug abusers and the mentally ill in this population, they may be particularly reliable witnesses.

Shelter employees also might be interviewed after work. But their comments might reflect a fear or losing their jobs more than a description of actual conditions inside the shelter.

A reporter is a trained, neutral observer. Readers can be much surer of their first-hand accounts than any second-hand descriptions.

Granted that a photographer can selectively shoot and edit pictures, but what's on a photo is at least a part of undeniable reality. Photos are worth more than a thousand words, particularly in their ability to document mischief.

The combination of first-hand descriptions and photos create the kind of journalism people not only should read, but will want to read. That kind of journalism can light fires under politicians.

It is only with an uncompromising, unfiltered picture of the inner workings of the system that policy makers and voters can decide how to address homelessness.


OK, I'm ready to make the call!

Vote in our strictly unscientific on-line straw poll below. If you're still unsure what you would decide, consult the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.


Now that you've voted, see how the media actually made the call.



What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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