IRE Journal – “Undercover Reporting: An American Tradition”

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 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 (

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,

undercover projects.

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

home labor.

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

undercover dimensions.

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

series, too.

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

of guidelines.

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

warrants it.”

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.