Two cars pull into the driveway of a farmhouse outside Kitchener, Ontario. In one, Mary Garofalo, host and consulting producer for Global’s 16:9, and camera operator Kirk Neff have been waiting nearby for days for Dave Switzer, a paralegal they suspect has duped his clients out of large amounts of money. As Switzer and a female companion lock up their car, Garofalo and Neff jump out of theirs, the camera already recording.
“I’d like to talk to you about all these people who are angry at you across the country,” the reporter says after introducing herself. “People are calling you a con man, Mr. Switzer. They say you took their money.”
The couple walks to the house as Garofalo keeps asking questions. “Mr. Switzer, anything at all?”
But it’s too late. The couple is inside the farmhouse.
What the industry refers to in hushed voices and defensive tones as “an ambush” is a last resort for broadcast news magazine programs such as 16:9. While ambushes are most effective when the subject responds or agrees to a later interview, critics argue that when the subject says nothing, the practice is more showbiz than journalism. Either way, ambushing—long a staple of television news and current affairs programs—is here to stay.
No matter how quick and jumpy ambushes look on television, they are meticulously planned and executed after weeks of trying to contact a source. At 16:9, the reporter, executive producer and deputy editor will sit down and discuss whether they want to find this person and attempt to conduct an “unscheduled interview” (a term Garofalo coined). They go through careful discussions with lawyers about private property, trespassing and dealing with people who don’t want their stories exposed.
16:9 journalists go through all of this because they believe ambushes are effective. Mary Perrone, the associate producer-turned-freelancer, says even when people slam doors on them, these encounters are just as important as long, formal interviews. The program, which fits three stories into 30-minute episodes, uses the technique to show its viewers that its reporters are going the extra mile as journalists. “I feel I’ve done my job by trying to find him, and a lot of people will say that’s ambush journalism,” says Garofalo of her attempt to speak to Switzer. “I don’t think that way. I’m simply trying to get the other side.”
And, as journalists in favour of ambushes point out, the tactic often pays off. One 16:9 episode about animal cruelty, for example, showed two sources answering reporter Christina Stevens’s questions during “unscheduled interviews.” After she ran up to a man who was hiding under his coat while knocking on the door of a house, he admitted he’d kicked a dog because he was drunk. A second man, who had a cockfighting ring in his barn, responded to Stevens by claiming he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.
CBC’s the fifth estate also airs ambushes. Reporter Bob McKeown has conducted what he calls “spontaneous interactions” with people such as televangelist Benny Hinn and David Frost, agent of troubled hockey player Mike Danton. He thinks the approach is valuable. Hinn, for example, gave answers that contradicted what he preached, while Frost revealed himself with his abrasive remarks. “Whether they try to talk their way out of it or not,” McKeown says, “you hope they do engage in a conversation because it gives you a chance to show who they are.”
CTV’s W5 was lucky when reporter Victor Malarek approached Robert Primeau, a mortgage broker he was investigating for allegedly compromising investments from people who hired him and his company, Primforce, at a hotel. Primeau agreed to do an interview later, when he was prepared. Executive producer Anton Koschany says his team works carefully to make sure each ambush, or what they sometimes call an “attempted interview” or “jump,” is critical to the story. But, he admits, “The fine line is that you could turn this into a very poor street theatre that has nothing to do with journalism.”
Although reporters and producers argue that ambushes are about “getting the other side,” the way they present these scenes—often gratuitously—suggests that’s not always the case. The Switzer episode on 16:9, for example, repeated parts of the ambush scene nine times in 10 minutes, then in a follow-up piece, and again on Global’s News Hour. In a recent episode of W5, parts of an ambush scene ran four times in a 20-minute episode. “I guess it speaks to the drama of the tape,” says Brad Clark, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, who worries that jumping out at a subject only makes for good television. “It’s showbiz—it’s not really journalism.”
He argues that ambushes, when warranted, should be used calmly and respectfully instead of quickly and relentlessly. “Treat them the same way you would treat any other character in your story.” Showing the other side in these cases would have meant, for example, Switzer making a comment or giving an interview.
As Garofalo sits at a picnic table at the Don Valley Brick Works, a heritage education centre in Toronto, waiting to tape a stand-up, she admits ambushes aren’t her first choice, saying she would much rather sit down and “hammer” someone with a debate. But in her line of work, that usually isn’t possible. “Someone who is hiding something is not going to sit down with you because they know you’re going to make mincemeat out of them.”
Garofalo says she often ambushed subjects when she worked at Fox’s A Current Affair. Once, a Massachusetts district attorney she was investigating for suspected ties to the Mafia punched her in the face. The ambush may be her last resort, but she always finds satisfaction in the pursuit. “I think you get used to that kind of adrenaline high,” she says. “Nothing really compares unless you’re jumping out of an airplane. The funny part is you never know what they’re going to do.”