“Journalists Go Undercover to Report on Slavery”
By Brooke Kroeger
Telling true stories about slavery often requires the use of surreptitious techniques. Today, we talk of reporters going “undercover.” Though some news organizations do not allow their reporters to use these techniques, undercover reporting holds a venerable place in journalism history, especially with coverage of challenging topics such as slavery. Investigative journalists have gone undercover to tell these stories for as long as slavery has been a story that needed to be told. And their work—then and now—is collected in an online database, thanks to New York University’s libraries. This means that for the first time people can find and read in one place some of the best historical and current examples of this reporting from the mid-1800s to our day at undercoverreporting.org.
This unique collection grew out of research for my book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception” (Northwestern University Press, 2012), in which I mined this remarkably vast historical record to develop my argument in favor of reporters using controversial journalistic methods to get stories otherwise unattainable.
At present, the database contains well over 2,000 pieces in all media that were curated by hand into 150 themed clusters. Each cluster focuses on a specific subject, and various exposés in our collection align with subject matter that highlights the Schuster Institute’s social justice agenda. Among these are some extraordinary assignments undertaken to hasten the abolition of slavery; to investigateblackbirding, in which Pacific Islanders were transported into indentured servitude on plantations throughout the world; and to illuminate the horrors of human trafficking from the late 1800s to the present.
What follows are some historic highlights:
Start with James Redpath’s deadpanned “Facts of Slavery” columns from Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune of 1855, culled second-hand from items in Southern newspapers. The columns report the prices fetched in slave sales or incidents such as a wealthy Kentucky family’s indictment for torturing two family slaves. Even though there is nothing undercover about Redpath’s early columns, they warranted inclusion because the act of clipping these items for aggregation beckoned him “south on an anti-slavery errand,” a place where Northern reporters had become welcome only in tar and feathers. Once on location, he supported himself with newspaper jobs secured in his own name in several towns. In secret, however, he sent coded, pseudonymous pro-abolition correspondence to editors in New York by roundabout way of relatives in Minnesota.
Oh, that Tribune. It also sponsored Mortimer Thomson in his stealth pose as a slave buyer—a ruse used more than once. Thomson’s assignment was to get inside the great auction of the Butler family slaves in Savannah in March of 1859. His buyer impersonation yielded “American Civilization Illustrated,” considered, despite its flaws, one of the most significant anti-slavery narratives of the pre-Civil War period. Being a slave-buyer was a clever masquerade: Imagine the utility for a reporter of being able to take notes undetected in the pages of a slave sale catalogue as he efficiently interviews both slaves and slave owners, all in one place, and without raising suspicion.
And what of Henry S. Olcott’s decision to volunteer with the Petersburg Gray regiment sent down to Charles Town, also in 1859, to guard John Brown before, during and immediately after his execution, and then to be able to telegraph his report to the Tribune as soon as he fled town? Two years later, another Tribune journalist, Albert D. Richardson, the last Northern reporter undercover in the South, developed system of code and ciphers even more elaborate than Redpath’s to get his reports back to his New York editors. He also wrote in the fictional persona of an elderly native of New Orleans to help avoid suspicion.
In the realm of child abduction and prostitution, W. T. Stead’s 1885 “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” for London’s Pall Mall Gazette is a classic. Stead went so far as to buy a 13-year-old girl from her parents, and though he immediately had her hustled away to safety in France, he even submitted without protest to serving a prison sentence for procurement and abduction.
And for The Age and The Argus in Melbourne, Australia and for the San Francisco Chronicle, reporters signed on as sailors in 1883 and 1892 for long “blackbirding”journeys to investigate the system that developed for recruiting Pacific Islanders for indentured work on the world’s plantations.
During the past 15 years, hidden cameras have been heavily used in award-winning work of U.S. television networks in exposing child enslavement rings and sexual predators in the United States and abroad.
We like to think of undercoverreporting.org as 21st century end notes—an easily searchable compendium with full citations, excerpts, and links or pdfs to actual stories, when possible. Unlike notes in a book (or e-books), our database has the added advantage of being updated immediately when worthy new material surfaces.
My hope is that this database of undercover reporting—which brings together for the first time numerous undercover investigations about slavery since the mid-1800s—serves to illuminate how critical the efforts by reporters have been through history in focusing public awareness on slavery, and also makes clear why journalists must continue to tell this story.
Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, author of four books, and professor of journalism at the New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. In 2012, she joined the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism as a senior fellow.
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Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.