Module JG170

Gotcha Journalism

Module author

Andrew Calcutt

University of East London

Learning objectives After studying this module, you will be able to:
  • Define gotcha journalism and explain this journalistic genre;
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Explain what is problematic about it.
Study point 1
Reading extract Gotcha Journalism


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

Gotcha Journalism is a negative expression used to refer to journalistic techniques that are designed to entrap interviewees. Journalists who use this technique try to catch people in contradictory statements or trip them into saying things that damage themselves and their reputations.

One technique of gotcha journalism is to get the person to state a position and then show a clip of footage where they contradict that position. Another tactic is to take statements out of context and present them as representing the whole picture. For instance, if the person were to say that there is no homeless problem in America, a TV program could use this for audio while they show images of homeless people. 

Other strategies include putting the interviewee on the spot with embarrassing information or eliciting an angry response that reflects poorly on them. A dishonest interviewer might even agree before the interview that certain topics will be out of bounds and then turn around and focus on that very topic for the interview. 

Some uses of gotcha journalism are ethical and proper. If a political figure is behaving in a dishonest way, putting them on the spot is a good idea. Also, posing contradictory statements of an interviewee against each other can be a good way of getting them to explain themselves and be straightforward and honest. For instance, Tim Russert was known as being a tough interviewer who would use some of these strategies. However, anyone he interviewed knew ahead of time that he would be difficult, and he would make sure to give a thorough representation of their views and behavior.

With respect to the legality of gotcha journalism, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for using this technique without many repercussions in 1964. A particular case tried by the court ended most libel protection for public figures. To win a libel case, it has to be proved that there is malicious intent behind adversarial reportage. 

Some authors think that the "feeding frenzy" of journalists' attempts to tear down public figures started with Watergate. After the time of Watergate, it became a journalistic practice to dig up the bad behavior of public figures. This became a convenient way to build up the reputation of a journalist. The downside of this kind of journalism is that it takes the focus off of serious issues and instead puts it on the foibles of people. 

The issue of the ethics of gotcha journalism really provides the entrance point to the issue of journalistic responsibility in general. Everyone knows that nowadays the media is very slick in its practices. Journalists slant their stories by portraying public figures in a negative light. They can do this by selective editing and taking comments out of context. Everyone is familiar with political ads that present sound bites of politicians saying noxious or self-damaging things. Many times, the particular media outlet is influenced by political or financial biases that fuel bad reporting. While gotcha journalism in its mild form is a useful tool, a steady diet of it poisons the news. 

With respect to journalists and gotcha journalism, many times to survive in the market, they will need to know the genre and practice it at least to some extent. A smart journalist will try to convert it into something useful. While throwing out some tidbits to the public, they can at the same time present a full picture of the story and represent both sides adequately. 

In conclusion, gotcha journalism is not so much a genre of the field. It is more a strategy that can be present at many levels in the field. Unfortunately, many current public figures defend themselves by accusing the whole group of journalists as gotcha journalists. When used in a controlled way, it can be a provocative and enlightening method for reporting the news and interviewing public figures.