International Journalists’ Network: “Finding Hidden Gems in the Undercover Reporting Database”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Finding Hidden Gems in the Undercover Reporting Database

IJNet (International Journalists’ Network)

By Nicole Martinelli

If you’re a journalist looking for inspiration or background on an investigative story or a communications researcher tired of scrolling through microfilm, check out the Undercover Reporting Database.

New York University recently launched a database chronicling undercover journalism dating back to the 1800s, a vital history of muckraking in the US.

It’s a joint project of Professor Brooke Kroeger of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and the university’s Division of Libraries. The website launch coincides with Kroeger’s book, “Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception.”

A good place to start perusing the collection is with Nellie Bly, pen name of American pioneer female journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. Her groundbreaking work included going undercover in an mental asylum in 1887, which you can read more about or download from the site and read as a PDF, along with her other exposes, such as the famous baby-buying scandal.

The database can be searched by writer, publication, story topic or undercover tactic – including prison infiltrations, shadowing migrants and impersonation. The database also unearths unbylined or unsigned articles and pairs them with the writers behind them, a boon for researchers.

A few things worth noting – the bare-bones design of the site can be difficult to navigate (there’s little visual difference between tags and links, for example, and some of the curated topic clusters are more confusing than helpful. A few of the older articles in I downloaded in PDF format were difficult to read, although they may fare better once printed out.

Journalists looking for inspiration will find plenty – from an undercover grandma exposing medicare fraud to the Pulitzer-winning investigation on airtraffic gridlock.

“Much of this material has long been buried in microfilm in individual libraries and thus very difficult to retrieve,” said Kroeger. “Most digitized newspaper archives do not go back past the 1980s or 1990s and even for those that do, it’s difficult to search without exact details of the piece you are seeking.”

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