Investigative Techniques Should Not Break the law

Willy Stern’s “The Heroic Media Attorney: An Endangered Species” provides an engrossing and excellent account of the obstacles investigative journalists encounter in performing their difficult and worthy jobs. As a lawyer who usually is on the plaintiffs’ side in libel, invasion of privacy and other unlawful newsgathering suits, I commend you and Mr. Stern for discussing this topic.

Let me offer this additional perspective. Libel is one thing of which every journalist has traditionally been and should be wary, the use of fraud, trespass, violation of state and/or federal wiretapping of laws is another. You don’t break the law to prove wrongdoing; the journalist who uses deceits necessarily undercuts his own credibility when later called to task in a court of law, by his editors, and by his or her peers (with the possible exception of the IRE). Because of “sweeps weeks,” we find that TV journalists are often deluded into thinking that their tactics are somehow worthy or justified. They are wrong and often do and should become defendants.

I don’t want or expect investigative journalists to pull their punches, just make sure they are above the belt. Lawyers can and should be there to help, but when the technique, for example, the hidden camera and/or impersonation, become focus of the story, red flags usually and should appear. The public is very concerned about fairness, including by journalists. My recent law journal article, “Establishing Constitutional Malice for Defamation and Privacy/False Light Claims when Hidden Cameras and Deception are Used by the Newsgather,” posted at my website,, is a primer for plaintiffs’ attorneys and lays out the minefields for journalists. Lawyers are the advocates, it is judges and juries — the people, society — who sanction journalists who err.

Neville Johnson
Neville L. Johnson, Esq.
Johnson & Rishwain, LLP
12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1201
Los Angeles, CA 90025
tel: (310) 826-2410 fax 310-826-5450 email: website: