When an undercover reporter joins your local poly group
How do you handle journalists? As a former alternative-newspaper reporter and editor, I've worked both sides of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. An article just out today in Australia points up the tension.
Its occasional writer Veronica Fil became intrigued with the Melbourne poly community and wanted to see what it was really like. So, "to obtain a more thorough perspective, I went incognito"; she befriended a couple and went to a PolyVic meeting undercover. Then she wrote about what she heard and saw.
If you run a poly group, this could happen to you. Here is how to think about it, and how to defend against it should you feel the need.
First off, here's some of the article itself. It's not unflattering overall, just invasive.
Play nice and share: An introduction to polyamory
Veronica Fil explores the ins and outs of keeping multiple lovers and track[s] one couple’s journey as they experiment with poly life.
It was our second date, and as Tom knelt in close and told me he had something important to say, I thought we were about to kiss. Instead, he whispered, “Please don’t be angry, but I have a wife…and a baby. It’s OK though…We’re poly.”
Perhaps I should’ve walked away right then, but I didn’t. The idea was too intriguing, and I was desperate to know what this curious culture of “poly” (polyamory) entailed. So for the next few months, I followed Tom and his wife, Claire, as they began their life together as a non-monogamous couple — all from the safety of my computer screen.
...It’s hard to measure the number of individuals involved in polyamorous relationships in Australia and worldwide.... But judging by the poly community’s global reach (a quick Google search will put you in touch with your local enthusiast group almost anywhere in the world), it’s probably more common than you think.
Critics of poly argue that it’s unnatural, immoral, or just weird. Some believe that it’s an unstable environment to raise kids in, despite the fact that poly supporters take pride in being a “family-friendly” community. So to obtain a more thorough perspective, I went incognito and attended a local poly meet-up group I’d discovered online. It was here that I met Sacha — a petite, fiery-haired lesbian who, despite the extreme discomfort I expressed as she caressed my leg, was most obliging to answer my questions.
Sacha had been enjoying a polyamorous relationship for the past five years. “You know, it’s no more difficult than having a gay parent, a single parent. Poly’s not this sleazy, cult-like thing. It’s about forming caring relationships. If your kid grows up in that kind of household, how can it be a bad thing?”
It’s this kind of rationalisation that piqued my curiosity about relationship longevity within the poly community....
Meanwhile, I was still receiving emails from Tom and his wife Claire, reporting on their poly progress and encouraging me to stop by for dinner and “some fun”.
“My wife’s still taking a while to be convinced…but she knows it’s better than me cheating,” Tom wrote during week one, referring to his reluctant but supportive spouse. He went on to describe their first, awkward threesome – clumsy, fumbling hands; confusion as to stick what in where, narrowly avoiding injury.
By week four, the recounts had become breathtakingly graphic....
...My online interactions with Tom and Claire showed me that personally, poly is not for me — I’m far too jealous and hesitate at the thought of sharing a meal, let alone a partner.... Rather than a relationship, it felt like a religious conversion. This is only one example of poly life, and certainly not indicative of the experiences of the broader poly community — but for me, the whole situation felt unsexy.
...I would have been entirely happy to have an affair with Tom. I just didn’t want to share.
Read the whole article (September 2, 2013).
Are you outraged? I suggest you calm down.
As long as the writer didn't reveal the identities of private figures and/or cause them damage, reporting undercover is legitimate and essential to a free society, and the right to do it is crucial. Even if it upsets people. Freedom to investigate and report on what's really happening, rather than only what spokespeople choose to tell the media, is essential to civil society. Here in the US, state legislatures that are controlled by the meat industry are passing laws making it a felony punishable by years in prison to photograph conditions on a farm or feedlot (see "ag gag"). If you object to these laws, you have to accept that it's legitimate to go undercover to report on other topics too.
It's not a "bad" journalist who does this, it's a good one. Lazy journalists just repeat official flack.
That said, you too have legitimate interests — in seeking to put your best foot forward and in maintaining your group's privacy and safety.
There are several things you can do:
● At the start of discussion groups, ask everyone to agree not to share personal information from the discussion outside the discussion. Ask for everyone to affirm that they agree to this, such as by a unanimous show of hands. We do this at the monthly discussions of Family Tree, my local poly group in the Boston suburbs. If anyone in your group will not affirm by voice or hand that they agree, discuss their reasons, and if there is no group consensus, ask them to leave. If you take notes, note that everyone agreed to maintain privacy.
● You can also say, "If any journalists or writers are present, we require you to introduce yourself now as a condition of staying." If there are any, the group can consider their agenda, who they are working for (ask), and whether to let them remain. In practice, experience shows that you have much to gain by accommodating reasonable journalists and in any case, by always treating them politely — on your terms.
● If you're concerned about correspondence getting into the media, at the bottom of emails you can assert in small print that all content is your personal property meant only for the intended recipient, and any further distribution or use in whole or in part without your permission is expressly prohibited.
None of these things fully protect you, and the law varies from place to place. But they warn intruders that you're ready to bring an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit, and if there's one thing journalists and their employers are scared of, it's getting sued.