IRE Journal Spring 2014 “Undercover Reporting: An American Tradition”
The history and best practices of reporting undercover
BY BROOKE KROEGER — NEW YORK UNIVERSITY pp. 20, 23-24 (full text below) IRE Journal – Kroeger – Spring 2014
TO ANYONE WHO STILL THINKS significant undercover
reporting stopped in the late 1970s, when ethical concerns
about the method first flared, please consider this:
From Jan. 1, 2013 to the end of April 2014, I posted 42 significant
new undercover investigations to the open-access database
at undercoverreporting.org. Those added in the first four months
of this year include a new human trafficking exposé by Ghana’s
Anas Aremeyaw Anas; the infiltration of a Wall Street secret
society by Kevin Roose for New York Magazine; David Spears’
book, “Exit Ramp,” which chronicles his 80 hours panhandling
off Interstate 205 in downtown Oregon City; a Nigerian human
trafficking investigation by Tobore Ovuorie for Premium Times
and a BBC “Panorama” elder care investigation that led to one
firing and seven staff suspensions.
The 37 entries for 2013 include the Upton Sinclair redux by
my colleague, Ted Conover, who got hired as a federal inspector
to gain access to a Nebraska beef slaughterhouse. In “The
Jungle,” Sinclair didn’t go any further than dressing the part and
toting a lunch pail. Conover’s 18-page report for Harper’s was a
2014 National Magazine Award finalist.
The undercover tradition
The point is, undercover reporting has continued, ethical conundrums
and all, in a steady and uninterrupted flow since at least
the 1840s. That’s when reporters for Horace Greeley’s New York
Tribune posed as auction buyers in Virginia and Louisiana to report
on the evils of slavery. In another case, a reporter signed on with a
Civil War infantry regiment of the Petersburg Grays to get up close
and personal at the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown.
For more than 160 years since, examples of important work involving
undercover reporting have numbered in the thousands.
That’s a lot, considering the time, editorial deliberations, effort,
ethical consternation, expense, exertion and risk these undertakings
so often demand.
It’s not hard to fathom why the appeal of undercover work
remains strong. Like almost no other journalistic form, it gives
reporters deep, unfiltered access to subjects, situations and institutions
that are important but hidden from the public. It also
permits the use of narrative storytelling techniques that can stir
impassioned public response and thus encourage action from
those in power. These are the best, if not the only good reasons
to undertake such a project.
Over the years, my research has found hundreds of prestigious
honors given for this kind of work. And little wonder. Historically,
the best undercover reporting has had a positive impact:
from heightened public awareness and calls for action to arrests,
firings, legislation and institutional reform.
Deception did not beget distrust
Missteps such as the 1992 ABC-Food Lion investigation and the
1998 Cincinnati Enquirer-Chiquita Banana exposé have their own
“Lapses” cluster in undercover reporting database, but it’s worth noting
that it’s small, especially compared to how often conventional
journalistic approaches go wrong. The much longer “Undercover
Journalism Debated” cluster is also worth a look (bit.ly/1fMuKiW).
A new, more disapproving attitude toward undercover reporting
did begin to surface in the late 1970s, when the vexing issue of
would-be truth-tellers engaging in deceptive practices first gave
pause to a few sectors of the editorial elite. What caused the
change of heart? The timing strongly suggests that the main driver
was not so much that the ethical baggage suddenly became
too heavy. Rather, it was the release of national surveys signaling
a precipitous drop in public trust of the media.
A poll released by the National Opinion Research Center in
1976 showed that the number of Americans with a great deal
of confidence in the press had fallen to 28 percent. By 1983,
that figure had slipped further to 13 percent. Reasons cited for
the growing distrust included overuse of unidentified sourcing,
too much pandering to the powerful, falsification and embellishment
of facts, bias, lack of concern about accuracy and a
perception that journalistic power and a presumption of importance
had increased to a point of arrogance and insensitivity.
As I note in my book on undercover reporting, none of these
is the natural sin of undercover reporting, and it was never included
in any list of culprits of mistrust. In fact, the practice was
almost always applauded in surveys undertaken by individual
newspapers, gauging reader response to their own high-profile,
A number of major newspapers banned undercover reporting
in the 80s. Mystifyingly, and to my surmise, these newspapers
assumed that banning undercover work was the most visible,
symbolic, concrete way to restore public confidence.
A spillover effect of this response was the dead hand it put
on big prize considerations. The 1979 Pulitzer board memorably
passed over the Chicago Sun-Times’ 25-part Mirage Tavern
series. After months of intensive legal and ethical vetting, the
newspaper opened and ran its own bar for about four months
to find out how petty graft in the city really worked. Mirage
remains one of the most inventive exposés of all time and led to
more than a dozen firings of city or state employees; 33 indictments
and 18 convictions of city inspectors; the creation of new
city, state and federal task forces and more. But because of the
sudden ethical handwringing on the Pulitzer board that year —
well chronicled in the press at the time — the series did not win
the prize so many thought it so deserved.
The next year came Merle Linda Wolin, who for nearly a year
was “Merlina” the Latina sweatshop worker, reporting undercover
for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in one of the earliest
mainstream newspaper efforts to engage and report on the city’s
growing Latino community. Each new installment was broadcast
over local Spanish-language radio and carried by La Opinion,
the Spanish-language newspaper. The series brought Wolin into
court to sue an employer who refused to pay her and an appearance
before a Congressional subcommittee as an expert on
Yet the Pulitzer board also declined to support Wolin’s project,
despite a supplementary, confidential report from the jury,
defending the work as its first choice. Judges for the 1980 Robert
F. Kennedy awards that year clearly gave this debate a pass. The
grand prize went to the Atlanta Constitution for a series on workers
in Georgia who earned below minimum wage. The series
included undercover stints by two reporters, one as a turpentine
worker and the other as a motel maid.
In the coming years, the duPont board awarded several Silver
Batons for television work that involved hidden cameras. A couple
of newspaper series that involved undercover components
even made the finalist lists at the Pulitzers. But the contrast with
the previous period was stark. Between 1960 and 1979, the Pulitzer
board had awarded five prizes to projects with prominent
So, to the more casual observer on the newspaper side it might
well have appeared that undercover had gone to ground. Remember,
these were the days long before a few key strokes into a
search engine could correct a misimpression. And somehow that
has remained a common view, even though significant projects
have continued to be produced with regularity. And, 15 years
after the Mirage, even the Pulitzer board came around.
Tony Horwitz’s two weeklong stints in 1994 as a poultry processer
for his Wall Street Journal series about the dirtiest, lowest
paid jobs in America took the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for National
Reporting. What is it about food processing? Charlie LeDuff’s
work in a pork plant was part of a 2001 New York Times Pulitzerwinning
Horwitz’s undercover episode fell under the vigilant ethical
scrutiny of the Journal’s standards-bearer of the day, Barney
Calame. The Journal had supported many such efforts
both before 1979 and has since, but always under a strict set
During my research for my book, “Undercover Reporting: The
Truth About Deception,” I was particularly struck by the way
Calame and the Journal’s then managing editor, Paul Steiger, explained
their approach to me in interviews.
Their thinking is of a piece with the standards of almost every
hallowed legacy media outlet that did not outright forbid
the practice: Go undercover as a last resort, don’t lie, identify
yourself if asked directly and explain the methodology to the
reader. But the Journal of the time clearly privileged the journalism
above all other considerations.
Steiger, who became founding editor-in-chief, CEO and president
of ProPublica, held the view that a publication needs to be
careful before resorting to extreme reporting measures. “But that
does not mean it should shy away from using them if the story
Calame emphasized the importance of avoiding collateral
damage, of doing no unintended harm to those “who either do
not know they are being quoted for publication or don’t understand
the possible consequences of being quoted or described,
even if they are aware.”
Steiger also waxed reflective on what case might make him
willing to breach the rules. He couldn’t think of one. “But this
is not something handed down from the mount,” he said. The
fundamental issue is credibility: “What should journalists do to
be accepted and credible by the lights of society? A policy of
not lying fits with that,” he said. “But it’s not a moral absolute.”
I expand upon all of these considerations in the book, but here
are a couple of other highlights gleaned from my research:
• Be careful in putting the writer at the center of the work,
making him or her more important than the story.
• Avoid the pitfall of “improperly speaking for others,” in Phillip
Brian Harper’s phrase. Don’t attribute more to the reporter’s
unique experience than its portion.
• Stay within the bounds of law.
• Have detached outside evaluations of a project before undertaking
• Don’t let “don’t lie” become some weird contortion of another
kind of untruth. Undercover reporting often involves
such tactics as camouflaging one’s appearance, finessing a
job application, hiding telltale equipment, dodging officials
who would not welcome a reporter’s presence or coaching
sources in how to keep the reporter’s secrets. These are
surreptitious acts. As uncomfortable or out-of-character the
intent to deceive might feel, it is, in fact, deception. Acknowledge
the behavior for what it is.
• And instead of the more typically accepted formulation of
“Make sure there is no other way to get the story,” I would
amend that to say, make sure there is not a more timely
and equally effective means of getting and presenting the
Brooke Kroeger’s four books include “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About
Deception” and “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist.” She is a professor at
the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University, where she directs
the graduate degree unit known as Global and Joint Program Studies.
For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. March 30: TBA April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.