Module JG020

Ambush Journalism

Module author

Kate Dawson

University of Texas

Austin School of Film

Learning objectives After studying this module, you will be able to:
  • Define and explain ambush journalism;
  • Explain the reasons for this concept;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Reflect this journalistic genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract available soon


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Ambush Journalism is important zu know

Ambush journalism, as pioneered by Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" fame, is the tactic of confronting suddenly, and without warning, the targeted subject for the purpose of eliciting knee-jerk responses to questions that, in a more controlled situation, where the subject is prepared to be bombarded by journalists, said subject would never give. 

Ambush journalism is a hotly debated tactic, regarded by other journalists as unethical, unprofessional, and a tool for sensationalizing a story for the sole purpose of personal gain, be it for the journalist himself, or for the purpose of monetary gain for his employer. Based on the success of this tactic, it is safe to say that the public loves what sometimes equates to journalistic gossip. Indeed the people and subjects pursued, and the product of ambush journalism would have been relegated to the gossip column in the past. 


Just the facts, M'am

Straight news stories are just as their name implies. The purpose of this type of journalism is simply to convey information to the reader, without any fluff or superfluous information. The facts are presented in a straight forward manner. Its aim is to inform, and inform only.

On the opposite side of the fence is feature journalism. A feature story includes all the facts of the straight news story, but is presented in a manner that makes for more interesting reading, often encompassing the subject's back story and other aspects of the situation to more fully fill in the details surrounding the main story. Journalists who write feature stories for print media must not only track down the facts, but also strive to find a new twist or unique angle to make the story more interesting and fresh. 



From out of left field

The ambush interview was created by Mike Wallace while working for the news program "60 Minutes," which debuted in 1968. The tactic was later abandoned by Wallace, but other journalists still practice this tactic today. Ambush is a word used to describe lying in wait for another for the purpose of a surprise attack. In the journalistic sense, the attack is verbal and is designed to catch the interviewee off guard, so as to elicit responses to hard hitting questions without the chance to dress up or sugar coat responses. 

Mike Wallace used the practice to ferret out the truth when it was considered to be clouded by pre-crafted responses and excuses designed to tell, at best, a distorted truth. Mike Wallace, even in the use of this surprise attack, maintained journalistic boundaries; however, other journalists have been quick to cross the line.

As of late, ambush journalism has morphed into a tool for personal gain, rather than a tool to bring truth to the public. Mike Wallace's brand of ambush journalism was about bringing information to the public that he believed was their right to know. 


What goes around comes around

What will journalists justify in the name of "truth?" Is being rude, disrespectful, or unnecessarily aggressive all part of the price people in the public eye must pay for their notoriety? Do the short comings and misjudgments of these public figures give a journalist the right to invade their privacy, stalk them on the streets, and hide out in their bushes waiting to pounce with a microphone, a camera, and some strong arm tactics? How would some of them feel when it's their feet being put to the fire? 

Jason Mattera, a conservative activist and author of two New York Times best-selling books about the events, and alleged brainwashing, surrounding the election of President Obama, employs the ambush technique to confront political figures then posts videos of these encounters on his YouTube Channel. 

Earlier in the year, during Hilary Clinton's book tour, she was confronted on the street by Jason Mattera, video camera in tow, requesting an autograph. When Mrs. Clinton asked his name, he responded, "If you can make it out to Christopher Stevens…I think you knew him." 

Christopher Stevens, a personal friend of Mrs. Clinton, was one of four Americans killed in Benghazi. Mattera lands a few more blows before Mrs. Clinton actually signs the book and returns it to him. At this point a body guard chases Mattera off. 

Shortly thereafter, Mattera's actions are reviled by Bill O'Reilly on "The O'Reilly Factor" saying, it "unacceptable" to use "a horrendous act of terror to make a political point."

Joining O'Reilly in his verbal tongue lashing of Mattera was Fox anchor Martha MacCallum, who agreed with him wholeheartedly. Afterwards, Mattera tweeted his displeasure about O'Reilly's failure to invite him on the program to answer the accusations personally. It seems that Mr. Mattera is less than pleased to be ambushed on the subject of his ambush of another. 


The Best Laid Plans

It appears, however, that Jason Mattera enjoys being in hot water, as long as he gets what he is after in the ambush. Sometimes when you don't play nice, things can back fire, such as Mattera's ambush/stalking of Lois Lerner, a controversial IRS executive. After following her onto private property, Mattera begins throwing out pointed questions designed, not to elicit a response, but to deliver thinly veiled accusations. 

The video clip of Mattera's ambush of Ms. Lerner, instead of garnering praise for his methods, actually garnered sympathy for the put-upon former IRS executive, a feat which caused Greg Gutfed of "The Five" to say, "So it takes a special gift to make the least sympathetic bureaucrat on the planet look sympathetic. Seriously, that even made me feel bad for Lerner, and I can't stand her."


Where to draw the line

While all agree that Mike Wallace's use of this technique was effective and performed in the search for truth, they also agree that this technique, in its current form, borders on bullying. The product of such ambush journalism is to serve a personal interest in gaining either notoriety or a monetary reward. When journalists stoop down to dug up dirt for no other purpose than casting themselves in the spotlight it casts a shadow of suspicion on journalism in general. Unfortunately, it appears that ambush journalism is in no way in decline, and that will continue to be the case until the public will no longer accept the product of this tactic.