Drugs Inc.: An ethical review

Watch S1E1 “Cocaine” 

Eddie: 0:30

Loco: 16:35

Drugs Inc. is a documentary television program that explores the drug trafficking and production in major cities across the US and the world. The show details the lives of recreational drug users, addicts, and dealers, as well as, professional drug councilors and law enforcement. First airing in 2010, Drugs Inc., produced by Wall-to-Wall media, took an in-depth look into some of America’s most popular drugs. The first episode titled “Cocaine” uses the testimony sources numerous sources to show the global effect of the US cocaine market. However, one thing that Drugs Inc. has received criticism for is that fact that is shows real drug manufactures and drug users using illegal substances on television. In the episode “Cocaine”, there is footage of anonymous source “Loco” and “Eddie” detailing their illegal involvement in the drug industy. Both of these sources admit to committing felony level crimes and “Loco” is actually filmed smoking crack in his apartment during the source of his interview. Now, as a producer how can you decide whether or not to show illicit or illegal activity in your documentary, and what are the legal and ethical problems with doing so?

Using these two sources as a case study, the stakeholders would be production crew and the sources used. The production crew would be deemed more vulnerable because that have granted anonymity two sources that detail crimes they have committed. They have agreed to keep the identity of their sources anonymous, even if they engage or to illegal activity. The production crew also takes responsibility for verifying the accuracy of these sources statements. Since they have allowed Loco to used a presumed fake name, and the source Eddie was only depicted as a blacked silhouette, and had a scrambled voice, their statements because they cannot be verified on merit of an individual and could be fabricated. If Drugs Inc. wants to be a credible documentary sources they must do some initial background research to verify their sources stories with in reason. In addition, the sources are entrusting the production the production crew to use their testimony if a way that does not dmage their personal image or perceived public perception. Many popular real-crime TV shows, such as Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator”, or COPS, the narrative of the program is shown through the eyes of the prosecution. This can paint the perceived offender in a negative light with untold consequences. The Columbia Journalism Review published an article, titled “The Shame Game” in 2007, after 56-year-old Louis Conradt Jr., a long time country prosecutor in Terell, Texas committed a suicide during a filmed raid for “To Catch a Predator”. When police entered his house Conradt was sitting in his hallway with a semi-automatic handgun, “I’m not going to hurt anyone,” he reportedly told police, then fired a single bullet into his head. Raising the question whether this one sided reporting is fair to their targets. It was later reported the search warrant, used to raid Conradt’s house was not valid, and all evidence collected on Conradt would have been thrown out in a court of law. To avoid a similar circumstance, Drugs Inc. must not frame their subject in a way that presents a certain stigma.

One of the red flags in Drugs Inc. is the fact they agreed to protect anonymous sources from both legal issues and terrorist organizations. As shown in the Eddie interview the Mexican cartel have a history of being a ruthlessly violent organization. By exposing some of the cartels drug smuggling methods Eddie could be labeled as a snitch or a dissenter from the cartels. In either scenario, Eddie would most likely be killed for the information disclosed in his interview. Now since Eddie was granted anonymity, his identity is secure and reporters can use legal precedent to protect their source if questioned by the law. But if a cartel demands to know who Eddie was, and has the proper leverage to do so, a discussion in the newsroom will have to take place.

(I was not able to find out how international newsroom would actually deal with this. However, in the case of an international kidnapping the journalist’s home country typically takes over negotiations.)


Another red flag is whether or not the production staff should step in and stop illegal or dangerous activity they are filming. A New York Times article “On reality TV, producers face moral and legal dilemmas.” This article takes a look at the increasingly unpredictable and unstable situations that reality TV crews are finding themselves in, and what they should do about it. The article uses the show “Intervention” by A&E, where the subject, Pam, an alcoholic, deiced to get behind the wheel of her Pontiac Sunfire after having a few drinks. Now, is it the responsibility of the producer to stop her? Producer Sam Metter doesn’t think so. “This is their life with me or without me,” said Mettler, in his interview with the New York Times. And legally documentary crew cannot be help responsible because they are being filming in their subject’s homes, as they engage in activities that they would be pursuing regardless of whether a camera crew was there. “The law in the United States doesn’t require you to step in and save people,” said David Sternbach, counsel for litigation and intellectual property matters for A&E Television Networks, to the Time. “And it doesn’t require you to stop a crime that’s in the works.” So back to Loco, Mettler would argue that Loco would have smoked crack whether or not the camera crew was filming him. Thus, cameras should keep rolling and the footage should be used to show something about Loco’s character and dependence on the drug.

Personally, I agree with Mettler’s reasoning when it comes to intervening if it can be presumed that engaging in the illegal activity is part of the subject’s routine or general character. That being said, if a subject explicitly says that want to commit a crime because it would make good TV, or if the crime seeks to inflict intentional harm, it is the producer’s responsibility to stop filming and take control over the situation. Since both Pam and Loco committed illegal activity that did not aim to harm and individual directly, I would continue filming and use the footage. However, in Pam’s case I would ask her to rethink her decision because her actions put many people at risk.

In conclusion, there are many gray area that are associated with filming illegal activity. First comes with the added responsibility to protect the sources identity. The code to protect anonymous sources still applies in video production, even when an individual can clearly be seen. Second, producers have to be careful not to frame criminals or criminal suspects in a way that is overly damaging to their reputation. Doing so will lessen the unnecessary harm done to the individual. Finally, the producers need to know when a situation should not be filmed or necessary assistance is needed to control an individual. There is the most amount of gray area in the area, but is producer follow the general code of journalism ethics and aim to report a good story and minimize harm most situations will turn out okay.


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