HBO stages child labor in documentary

Addison Smith | Opinions Editor

As a journalism major, I am required to take a media ethics course as part of my education. There are quite a few things we learn, so summarizing the class in a column isn’t the best idea. However, it doesn’t take a media ethics course for you to figure out what HBO reporters did in India was the wrong move.

For those unfamiliar with current news revolving around HBO (besides Game of Thrones and Veep returning), reports from soccer ball production company Mitre have come out that HBO producers staged two Indian boys “making” a soccer ball.

According to the two children they filmed, not only was the shot staged, but the things they said to the camera were staged as well, according to an article on Buzzfeed.

The two brothers were used in a piece on child labor in India for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel; Mitre has apparently been accused of using child labor before, and HBO thought that airing this piece would bring more awareness to the situation. Instead, it brought a lawsuit and questions regarding their ethics.

Needless to say, what HBO did wasn’t good. Leading the public to believe one thing by manipulating the scene is one of the no-nos in the journalism world. Adding a defamation lawsuit on top of losing good faith with an audience is just the tip of the iceberg.

While Mitre might actually be engaged in using children for labor purposes, staging two children, whose parents both have sound jobs, to make that point isn’t the best way to go about the situation. It promotes laziness within journalism, showing that the people who worked on the story were unwilling to truly dig deep into the issue and find actual child laborers for the company.

However, HBO is claiming that Mitre uses child laborers “around the world” and that they have substantial evidence to back these claims. Because of this, HBO officials believe the case brought against them lacks merit, as the claims made in the video are substantiated, but just demonstrated with the two boys.

Regardless if HBO can win the defamation case brought against it, there is still an issue with this reporting. We turn to journalists for trustworthy and quality reporting, not for staged shots to prove a point. Even if Mitre is engaged in using child labor, that doesn’t give HBO any right to stage shots for the sake of telling a story and passing it off as real reporting.

If there had been any sort of dramatization or message saying the boys were actors, this conversation wouldn’t be had. Instead, HBO passed them off as two struggling Indian children, when they are actually enrolled in school and not scrounging for pennies.

The trial is expected to go on for four weeks, but many are not expecting the CEO of HBO to have to testify. Many are expecting Bryant Gumbel to testify for the defense, however.

HBO is a quality television organization, and with current events shows such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Real Time with Bill Maher, the organization has made themselves a household name in regards to the news. This lack of journalistic ethics puts the network in a poor light, although other programming will seemingly not be affected by this gaffe. However, Bryan Gumbel will certainly lose credibility with other news organization.

Child labor does exist, but staging it isn’t the way to bring the conversation up, HBO. Any hope to get the message across was lost when the scene was staged. We hear about children in Brazil who scrounge in the garbage and other incidents of child labor throughout the globe. The fact that children are forced to work for only pennies is something we have known for a while, but to see it firsthand with these children was a wake-up call.

Too bad the wake-up call happened from a false alarm.