Gotcha journalism is a term that has slowly been gaining in popularity since 1982. Historically its use can be traced back to 1982 when the British tabloid, The Sun featured a headline of the single word “GOTCHA.” Since then gotcha journalism has come to mean specific attempts by journalists to trick people into contradicting themselves or into saying things that will prove self-damaging, usually by tricking the person in some way or another.
Techniques for gotcha journalism can vary. In a planned interview a journalist may decide to ask questions that the interviewee doesn’t really want to answer, or the journalist may be prepared with facts and information that will place predicted answers in dispute. This can occur easily with the amount of news available on public figures. A political figure who has made contradictory statements might be challenged with quotes of their own statements that directly contradict a present answer at an interview, or even in some instances, prepared footage of their own opposite answers from a previous date.
Another way journalists may practice gotcha journalism is to take partial answers and present them in an out of context setting. A TV news organization could use footage that contradicts what someone is saying or that shows the opposite side of something. If a politician was foolish enough to exclaim there was no homeless problem in America, for instance, a TV program could use this voice over while showing footage of homeless people in America.
Other examples of gotcha journalism include putting interviewees on the spot by asking them about embarrassing or controversial information, especially if the person being interviewed is clearly not prepared to take these questions. Part of the goal may be to make the interviewee look less intelligent or visibly embarrassed. Another goal is to elicit statements from the person that are not going to reflect well on that person.
Though not specifically journalism, Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine practiced a form of gotcha journalism repeatedly. This was especially the case when he visited Charlton Heston and represented himself as a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Moore did not let Heston know that he would be pursuing a line of questioning not in keeping with NRA philosophy, and would actually be confronting Heston on some of his actions in support of the NRA after devastating shootings of children.
There may be some legitimate reasons to practice some forms of gotcha journalism, but there are other ways to confront people on seeming inconsistencies in their statements or actions. The late Tim Russert of news fame, was extremely good at this, especially as the host of the NBC show Meet the Press. He was known as one of the toughest interviewers in the business but would also make sure to fully represent the views of the people he interviewed. Those people interviewing with Russert were also aware that they would be expected to account for any seeming inconsistencies in behavior and statements. This is not gotcha journalism because interviewees that they would be asked very tough questions when they met with Russert.