Advances in technology are changing the game of undercover investigations conducted using hidden cameras and not-so-hidden cameras. But the ethics and practical challenges of reporting these stories remain as complicated as ever.
Investigative journalists Dave Savini of CBS 2 Chicago, Joseph Rhee of ABC and Matt Meagher of Inside Edition, along with CBS attorney Andy Siegel, discussed the state of the art at last month's Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Miami.
One big change not only in technology but in our culture is that in a day when many cell-phone cameras and other compact video recorders are so commonplace, it's not always necessary to employ exotic spy-camera technology.
For example, an ABC report on congressional lawmakers accepting free travel to an American Association of Airport Executives conference at a Hawaiian resort was shot with a "tourist camera" operated by a member of the investigative team, posing as a conference attendee.
"This was shot completely out in the open," Rhee said, while the undercover cameraman went around socializing with the other conference attendees.
Savini used a similar technique in a report on alcohol abuse on cruise ships, most of which was shot with cameras hidden in plain sight, with the operators posing as other passengers. In both cases, the camera operators were only occasionally challenged about why they were shooting so much video.
Savini showed one example from the cruise-ship story where his cameraman was told to stop shooting as he followed a group of passengers as they stumbled back to their room, but he got the video anyway. "They noticed a weird guy following them with the camera, but what they didn’t know was that the guy next to him had the hidden camera," Savini said.
Rhee showed off a Samsung Sports Camera the size of a cigarette pack as the example of the compact consumer technology that can be used to unobtrusively capture video without using a hidden camera per se. Another option one of his cameramen rigged up is simply a camera bag with a hole in the side, allowing the operator to record video without removing the camera from the bag. "My instinct, if possible, is to go with something like this, and not have wires hanging all over you," Rhee said.
Investigations that use consumer video technology still have to be justified to ABC's lawyers as if they were hidden-camera investigations, meaning that the investigative team has to be able to argue that there is no other way to get the story.
Siegel said there is still the same question of whether the subjects of the investigation can claim they didn't know they were being recorded. "You, as the professional journalist, are still going to be considered the sophisticated party in any hidden-camera case," he said. On the other hand, CBS won a case in which a police officer was recorded using a cell-phone camera, partly because the jury believed the cop should have suspected he was having his picture taken when he saw someone aiming a cell phone at him and following him wherever he moved, Siegel said.
There are still times when "you need the most secret gear possible," and the camera hidden in a button or a pen or a pair of eyeglasses makes sense, Rhee said. Even then, a glint of light off a lens can give the scheme away if those you are investigating are sufficiently suspicious.
Meagher showed one clip from an Inside Edition investigation of dog fighting where one of the guards thought he saw a camera concealed on the clothing of the investigator, who was lucky to be able to bluff his way out of the situation.
Hidden-camera expert Mitchell Wagenberg said he still gets plenty of business for his firm, Investigative Mechanics, which makes hidden cameras for both TV and law-enforcement use, and for his production company, which runs hidden-camera operations, mostly for the major networks. "Miniaturization is great, but still have to know how to shoot," he said.
Eyeglass cameras, which his firm has been making for more than 12 years, are among the easiest to operate because the camera looks wherever the person wearing it is looking. That generally applies to anything "above the neck," Wagenberg said, whereas a camera hidden in a shirt button or a pen is going to be more difficult to aim. "You'll still come back with [pictures of] floors and ceilings if you don't take the time to learn to operate the gear," he added.
Certainly, it's true that the equipment has become much more compact. When Wagenberg got into the business some 25 years ago, he was hiding 16 millimeter cameras in big briefcases. Today, he can hide a camera capable of shooting 30-frames-per-second video in a cigarette lighter, he said.
Often, his engineers start with something like a Sony camera, strip it down to its core components and replace the original lens and imaging electronics with a tiny camera that can be hidden in a piece of jewelry or an eyeglasses frame, attached by wires to the actual recording device, hidden in a pocket.
They also modify the instrumentation on the camera -- for example, to use vibration to signal when the camera is recording or when its battery is low. A setup like that typically costs about $3,000.
Investigative Mechanics' next generation of cameras, due out in a couple of months, will use WiFi wireless-networking technology so that the wireless-camera operator doesn't have to carry the recording device at all. Instead, the image can be beamed out as an encrypted radio signal and recorded on a laptop outside the building where the hidden-camera investigation is taking place.
Wagenberg agreed that there are now more times when an undercover investigation doesn't necessarily require a hidden camera. "Depending on what scenario is, yes, cameras are ubiquitous and you can get away with murder," he said. Yet while tourist cameras and homemade gear may be adequate for "bad macaroni salad" stories, he added, "you don't go into anything involving guns and drugs with anything but the most sophisticated, tiniest gear possible.”