TV networks have eyes everywhere at RNC

Signs throughout the Republican National Convention hall this week announce “You are being recorded”–a warning about the throngs of news cameras capturing every move. But the same signs could well appear all over downtown Cleveland, wherever RNC delegates and protesters roam.

Dozens of unmanned cameras perched high on buildings, hotels, and billboards, trained on public and protest areas, are streaming non-stop footage not to a wall of TV monitors in a security center but to the control rooms at major broadcast networks including ABC and CNN.

As usual, plenty of credentialed professional journalists are carrying cameras to record the action inside and outside Quicken Loans Arena for the RNC. But the widespread deployment of unmanned, unmarked cameras is unprecedented for convention coverage and raises a whole host of ethical issues. Networks reached by CJR say they are capitalizing on streaming technology to better capture stories and serve their audience. But some question whether broadcast media is crossing a line using unmarked cameras–essentially hidden cameras–to record people in public. What does it mean for privacy, and who could get access to the footage?

 

We’ll employ web cameras that we put in strategic places around town, basically consumer devices, like a nanny cam, that gives us great access.”

 

Some media experts say in a time of shrinking budgets and affordable tech, installing webcams is a way to get the story while managing resources wisely. Others say to surreptitiously record the public at a protest is a slippery slope with unforeseen ramifications that could include escalating a tense situation if, for instance, protesters assume cameras are controlled by law enforcement.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

ABC’s control room staffers are watching footage from as many as eight webcams the network installed on private buildings and aimed at public locations, says Brian Kennedy, the network’s vice president of global news gathering and operations planning.

“We’ll employ web cameras that we put in strategic places around town, basically consumer devices, like a nanny cam, that gives us great access,” Kennedy says. “For a couple hundred dollars, you have eyes and ears around town.”

The network’s production team worked with businesses and individuals to install the webcams. Network staff won’t necessarily be monitoring the feeds. “They record 30 days at a time,” Kennedy says. “If they break or get lost, it’s not a high cost. It’s potential high payoff with not very much investment.”

“We’ve been using this type of technology for a while now,” he adds. “The convention is a good use for it, because there’s a lot of access.” The idea is to plan ahead for potential news by setting up cameras in strategic locations. ABC deployed similar cameras in Ferguson while waiting for the decision on whether police officers would be indicted, and they plan to use the technique in Rio for the Olympics.

Traditionally, broadcast media honors requests not to be filmed, like when videographers record B-roll footage of a day at the beach, says Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who runs the blog MediaNation (no relation to ABC’s Kennedy).

But when there’s a small camera mounted to a building, how does someone request they not be recorded? The media’s use of the equivalent of security cameras to cover news “raises ethical issues we haven’t thought through,” Kennedy says.

 

With so many unmanned cameras recording the action around Cleveland by broadcast networks, there is no way to tell which cameras are recording to protect a private business, which were set by law enforcement, and which could provide fodder for the evening news.

 

ABC’s Kennedy says the cameras will not capture faces and are only filming in public places.

“Nothing will stream live without going through the editorial process, and the standards that editorial would put on it,” says ABC’s Kennedy, a tech guru known as an innovator in broadcasting who points out that the power of a satellite news truck can now be worn in a backpack or on a reporter’s hip. “We’re all mindful that we’re not looking to hide or catch anything. We’re looking to cover a story.”

And a big story it is, logistically on the ground and in global reach. Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, says that this RNC is “the most technologically sophisticated setup we’ve ever done at a convention.”

CNN has “dozens” of cameras inside and outside the convention, says Feist, with “hundreds of miles of cable” to connect all the scenes and their studios to all their channels and stream to phones, computers, and TVs around the world. CNN’s arsenal includes HDTV cameras, regular TV cameras, and cameras for streaming, unmanned and manned, stable and roving. Some are mounted on rooftops, and offer views of public locations.

When it comes to protests, media have traditionally worn clothing or other gear that advertises their news outlet, or a bright vest that says “press” in extreme and potentially violent circumstances like war. They do that to protect themselves. Generally, people want their stories told and are unlikely to harm an obvious journalist.

But when you don’t know who is a journalist in those circumstances, or you don’t know whose camera is watching, media watchdogs worry that an already volatile circumstance might get worse.

With so many unmanned cameras recording the action around Cleveland by broadcast networks, there is no way to tell which cameras are recording to protect a private business, which were set by law enforcement, and which could provide fodder for the evening news.

Placing cameras trained on public places around Cleveland “is a continuation of what’s been done in the past,” says Vince Gonzales, professor of professional practice at USC-Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Gonzales says that there have been plenty of instances when news stations set up cameras along a protest route, and that many news organizations have access to closed-circuit footage from highway traffic cams. There’s also the so-called “beauty shot”–a staple of broadcasting that involves a live feed of a city’s skyline or a landmark such as New York City’s Times Square. Most, if not all, of the major networks are using one in Cleveland (ABC’s is mounted to a billboard, is weatherproof, and can keep itself on for a week), and CNN flew drones over the city prior to a “no drone” rule taking effect, so they are able to show that footage to viewers for location and spatial context.

CJR also reached out to CBS, FOX and NBC to discuss their tech plans for the RNC, including unmanned or robotic cameras, but was unable to reach anyone willing to comment on the record.

Gonzales notes that protests are in public, and “designed to generate attention around an issue. You are there to have your issue talked about. Cameras will be there.” After all, he says, a demonstration isn’t a closed private meeting to which the media hasn’t been invited.

“I don’t think people realize how many cameras are out there,” Gonzales adds. “In a public space these days, you are being recorded.” The majority of those cameras aren’t controlled by media.

Producers are looking for an advantage, a new shot, and a fresh angle, says Bob Wheelock, an executive producer with more than 30 years experience in broadcast news, including for ABC, NBC, and Al Jazeera America. He also sees a disadvantage to the webcams: “With a camera operator, you can tell them to move. If you have a fixed camera, and nothing happens, that’s it.”

Meanwhile, citizens are moving around, capturing video and live tweeting, snapping, and streaming. Wheelock says so many protesters will be taking footage, the bulk of the coverage will come from protest participants themselves.

What separates ABC from everyone out there with a phone? Brian Kennedy acknowledges the technology it is using “is not that different,” but the network expects its data infrastructure will deliver significantly higher speed and better quality than Facebook Live or Periscope.

He also stresses nothing will go live from the network’s webcams without being vetted by their editorial staff–setting the content apart from streams on social media.

Installing cameras enables broadcast news divisions to capture protests “without paying a body to be there,” notes Nina Berman, associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

But Gonzales says that it might, in some cases, be safer for reporters. “There are situations where crowds can turn on reporters,” he says. Some news outlets train journalists to shoot with iPhones, so they blend in with the public and don’t draw attention to themselves.

“It’s the fine line between being open about what you are doing and getting the story in the safest way possible,” Gonzales says.

But Dan Kennedy cautions journalists might be “heading down a road without thinking through the ramifications.”

“Whether you’re talking about a camera on the building or a drone, you’re talking about people being recorded surreptitiously,” he said. “It’s different than going in and shooting the protest and everyone can see what they are doing.”

Another concern: If there are mass arrests, there is a high likelihood that law enforcement will want any unbroadcast footage. The First Amendment does not automatically prevent media from having to comply with a subpoena, and ensuing litigation can get costly.

“There is no going back,” Gonzales says. “You don’t want to be perceived as spying on someone. How do we use this for news gathering but not become the story ourselves? I don’t want to say, we can photograph and do whatever we want, that’s not it.” Journalists, he says, need to develop new policies and ask themselves questions, such as “Will we enflame the situation?”

Brian Kennedy is confident in ABC’s strategy. “You’re seeing the skyline. You’re seeing buildings. You’re seeing a peaceful demonstration. Often times, we have multiple views. It’s not something where we’d be crossing a line. There’s ample opportunity for editorial and standards process to make sure it’s up to ABC standards.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Valerie Vande Panne is an award-winning independent journalist, currently based in Boston. Her work has appeared in the Boston Phoenix, The Daily Beast, Mashable, and Salon, among other publications. She is a former editor of Detroit’s alt-weekly, the Metro Times. Follow her on Twitter @asktheduchess.