Background: The week of May 7, 1990, KARE-TV aired a four-part series about the Lifespring program which had recently come to Minnesota. The series was entitled "Mind Games?" A brief synopsis of the program follows.
Part I. Lifespring is described as a self-improvement personal growth program, an "exhaustive 40-hour seminar course, with participants on an emotional roller-coaster." There are pictures of a local seminar session, taken with a concealed camera; the pictures are blurred to prevent identification of the people present. Two respected citizens, both well-known in the Twin Cities area, appear on camera and state that the Lifespring program has been of great benefit to them. One of them, the president of a local computer company, states he hopes his employees will take the program. On the other hand, two other participants, one a local person, appear on camera to state that for them the program had been psychologically disturbing. John Hanley, the founder of Lifespring, is quoted as saying the program is a form of education, while other persons report that the program uses humiliating confrontational techniques.
Part II. The announcer begins by saying, "Some people attending the self-improvement seminars call the sessions positive and uplifting. Others call the group a cult." There are reports on the deaths of Artie Barnett in Portland, Oregon, of David Priddle in Eugene, Oregon, and Gail Renick in Seattle, all prior to 1980, all allegedly attributable to an inability to handle the Lifespring program. Members of the families and one of the attorneys are interviewed. It is reported that lawsuits over these deaths were settled for substantial sums. Reference is made to the secrecy of the training exercises.
A University of Minnesota psychologist, who had taken the course and liked it, also appears on camera stating, "I don't know what happened in the past, but from what I've seen, this is a very conscientious, careful, ethical group. It's not a free-for-all, it's not a cult, and they are not experimenting with people's lives." The TV reporter closes with the comment that "a variety of controversial exercises continue."
Part III. Appearing on camera are psychologists from Oregon and California, plus several other persons who claim Lifespring is a cult in the sense it is "something magical" and "surrounded by mystery." Two officers of Lifespring are interviewed, strongly denying any cult-like implications, pointing out there is no odd philosophy involved and no charismatic leader. A satisfied graduate explains that participants did not talk about what went on in the sessions simply to preserve "the spontaneity of the experience." The television reporter closes by saying, "While some say it is a rip-off, there are many who defend it." Next evening, says the reporter, there will be a report on how Lifespring is "raking in millions of dollars."
Part IV. Some controversial history of founder, John Hanley, is related. A 1980 excerpt from ABC-TV News is shown describing Lifespring as "One of the most controversial self-improvement groups in the U.S." A business magazine is quoted as saying Lifespring annually grosses millions of dollars. Hanley is reported as owning a "plush" California estate, and a person who had attended a "guest event" complains of the hard-sell. Various testimonials about the worth of Lifespring are given, and the reporter notes that the program is promoted by word of mouth, not by advertising. A satisfied Minnesota customer states his brother and mother are taking the course, and says the excitement and enthusiasm generated can look like a hard sell. A psychologist states, "There's some people who can withstand this kind of emotional intensity and there are others who cannot." The announcer says dissatisfied customers receive refunds, less their initial registration fee.
Discussion: While Lifespring disputes various aspects of the television report, the dispute, at bottom, is over the essential nature of the self-improvement program. Lifespring says it produces an educational course designed to increase personal effectiveness, using an experiential or participatory learning model. We understand Lifespring to agree that its training course may not be for everyone and that care must be taken to assure that those who are not able to handle the training are screened out. Indeed, Lifespring says it has established such screening guidelines. Lifespring claims that it has made changes in its program to avoid some of the problems that occurred during its early years. Lifespring maintains that its training course is effective and worthwhile, and that KARE-TV's portrayal of its program was inaccurate, unfair and misleading and was sensationalist in tone and substance.
The basic thrust of the four-part series, it seems to us, was simply that Lifespring is controversial and to explain the reasons for the controversy. Consequently, the television program presented persons, both professionals and participants, on both sides of the controversy. Some of the information in the television series was favorable to Lifespring. Some was not. Lifespring's defense of its program was presented with essential accuracy and fairness. At the same time, information was also presented to rebut Lifespring's defenses. Obviously, Lifespring would have preferred a report weighted more to its position, and admittedly the presentation, whether pro or con, was at times dramatic, in large part because of the capacity of the electronic media for the visual image. In the interests of fairness, KARE might have placed Lifespring within the context of motivational seminars generally, which are quite popular and which use in varying degrees confrontational play-acting models. We conclude, however, that the station did not exceed the bounds of accuracy and fairness in its report on a controversial subject. We might offer two examples to illustrate our conclusion.
One of the issues receiving considerable attention at the News Council's hearing concerned the allegation of whether Lifespring was a cult. We do not understand the television program, however, to have adopted the position that Lifespring was a cult, only that some sources thought it had these characteristics. The station properly presented rebuttal evidence that Lifespring was not a cult. (Some members, though not all, felt the station, in fairness, should have stated there was no evidence that Lifespring's program was a "cult" in the common sense of that word.)
Again, on the question of whether Lifespring used training techniques that were too confrontational, the television report gave both sides of this issue. Significant, we think, is that the station gave prominence to interviews with two well-known local personalities who spoke persuasively of how the program has benefited them. Ultimately, the merits of Lifespring will be decided not by KARE-TV's program but by a marketplace of informed customers.
Lifespring, after the hearing, objected to the testimony of a witness who had been brought to the hearing by the television station. This witness was not featured in the four-part television series, and her testimony has been disregarded by the Council. The Council is well aware that for every witness KARE might produce, Lifespring could produce an opposing witness.
Complainant next contends it was improper journalism for the television reporter to obtain entrance to a Lifespring training session posing as a typical participant, and then, with the aid of a concealed camera, taking pictures of the proceedings. The use of deceptive methods in newsgathering, while quite common in investigative reporting, has always been a troubling ethical question. Deceptive surveillance, which might be condemned if done by the government, is generally permitted by the news media. Nevertheless, the invasion of people's privacy raises serious ethical concerns.
Generally speaking, there must be some serious question of the legitimacy of a particular enterprise to justify the use of deception in obtaining information. In this case, it seems to us that sufficient controversy surrounded the self-improvement program to warrant the reporter's ostensible enrollment in the training course and to use a camera to report on the activity. The use of a concealed camera, however, presents special concerns because the camera intrudes in a special way on the privacy of individuals. Particularly is that true in this case where the camera intrudes on the activities of the third-party participants who have separate privacy interests. Here it is significant that the intrusion was lessened by the television station blurring the picture images so no one was identifiable. It might be noted, incidentally, that the deceptive visit to the training session produced nothing derogatory to the Lifespring program.
The grievance is denied.
Concurring: Bednar, Casey, Chucker, Falkman, Graham, Larson, Orwoll, Parrish, Persons, Simonett, Sundin, Swain, Tanick, Warder
Dissenting with regard to the station's use of a concealed camera: Chucker, Larson
June 15, 1990