Media critics, journalists weigh in on the issue of ‘toilet’ journalism

Friday, May 29, 1998


The debate on “toilet” journalism continues.


The popularity of undercover restroom reporting was the focus of a recent edition of Reliable Sources, a program CNN tags as “a critical lens on the media.”


Host Bernard Kalb questioned whether it is really necessary for televisions stations to air secret footage of homosexual activity in public bathrooms. “If you are a reporter, you can bring that information to your audience by just telling them without the shock pictures,” he suggested.


Steve Alvarez, a reporter for Miami's WPLG-TV, defended his station's work. “I'm proud of it because it was a fair, accurate and honest assessment of what's going on out there. … I found an incredible amount of activity going on in public restrooms in virtually every big-name department store mall in South Florida. These are public places. The public has a right to know.”


KOMO-TV in Seattle was one of the first stations to report on the subject. KOMO reporter Chris Heinbaugh interviewed Keith “Cruisemaster” Griffith, operator of the Web site “cruisingforsex.com.” The site has been used by many TV stations because it lists tips on where reporters can go to find hot spots for secret sex.


Joe Barnes, KOMO's news director, said on Reliable Sources that his station did not tape in bathrooms, but rather concentrated on open activity in public parks.


“We have to respect the viewer,” Barnes said. “When we talk about how many people are no longer watching the news, it's because we have earned—in both broadcast journalism and in the print—we have earned the right to lose the respect of our readers and viewers by how we have treated them. And I think it's time to treat them with respect.”


In preparing for Reliable Sources, CNN producers asked various stations for their bathroom footage. Only two cooperated with the news program. Howard Kurtz, media reporter for The Washington Post found that ironic, considering reports that some TV stations engaging in what has come to be known as “toilet journalism” have willingly turned their tapes over to the police.


As the First Amendment Center reported earlier this month, Kurtz charged in a recent Washington Post article that nearly a dozen arrests were made after Charlotte, N.C.'s WSOC-TV offered its tape to police.


Vicki Montet, a news director at WSOC, vehemently denies giving police tapes of undercover footage of sexual activity in restrooms, but admits that the station did show the cops portions of the tapes under the station's supervision. She said: “There are situations where you have to invite authorities into the newsroom to discuss an investigation you may have initiated.”


Kurtz said that Montet's was a “fairly minor point. It's not a huge distinction.” The bottom line, Kurtz said, “is that they are cooperating with police.”


Griffith, the Cruisemaster, said that the “heat” these TV stations are receiving by media critics, colleagues and some news directors may be the reason behind WSOC's denial.


“What is the difference between showing the cops the tapes 'under supervision' and giving the cops the tapes? Same impact,” Griffith said. He said Montet should not “divert the issue, which should be their cooperation with law enforcement while covering a story that was not well-researched and was generated entirely for the sake of ratings. If it were well-researched, then they would have realized rather quickly that cruisers are not a threat to kids.


“There was a time when reporters would need a court order before cooperating with law enforcement,” Griffith said. “Now, with this story, the reporters bring the story to the cops. I consider that crossing a line into bad journalism practices.”


Bob Steele, director of the Poynter Institute's ethics program, said: “News organizations appropriately use the First Amendment to protect our journalism work products from improper intrusion by law enforcement authorities or prosecutors.


“It is inappropriate to voluntarily give notes or tapes to law enforcement in an investigative process barring the most exceptional of cases when someone's life or profound safety may be at risk,” Steele said. “The same standard of protection should apply in cases where law enforcement officials want to view video that is not aired or to look at any reporter's notes.”