Toronto Star Pubic Editor:

September 15, 2017

The public interest and the ethics of undercover reporting: Public Editor

When is undercover reporting justified? Did the ends justify the means in a Star reporter going undercover in a Toronto factory to learn about health and safety conditions for temp workers?

During her undercover stint at Fiera Foods Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked on the croissant production line. She describes the pace of the work as crushing.
During her undercover stint at Fiera Foods Sara Mojtehedzadeh worked on the croissant production line. She describes the pace of the work as crushing.  (Toronto Star) | Order this photo  

Journalism’s history of undercover reporting is fraught with contradiction.

On one hand, some of the most celebrated reporting of the past century or so resulted from courageous reporters who went undercover to expose injustices and wrongdoing.

On the other hand, is the fact that journalism’s core value is truth. How can lying to get a story be reconciled with that value?

Like so many ethical issues in journalism, this is not a black and white issue. Journalist’s first obligation is to seek truth and report it. But there are some circumstances when truth can only be discovered by means of deception. In such cases, the overriding value is the public interest.

Did the ends justify the means of the Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh going undercover for a month at Fiera Foods, one of Toronto’s largest industrial bakeries, to expose working conditions for precarious workers who rely on temp agencies to find work? In my view, this was most certainly justified.

The Star’s journalistic standards guide makes clear that undercover reporting is a tool of last resort, to be used following extensive consideration at the newsroom’s highest level: “Undercover reporting, photography and surveillance video should be used rarely and a case must be made that the story to be uncovered is of high public interest,” the policy states.

In practice, approval for undercover reporting is given only when reporters and senior editors have determined that the story could not be obtained by other means. Here, editor Michael Cooke and managing editor Irene Gentle made the judgment call to allow Mojtehedzadeh to go undercover. They concluded there was indeed no other way to get this information, and most important, that this was a story of strong public interest.

Mojtehedzadeh had spent many months investigating temp agencies, seeking information about injustices to some of our community’s most vulnerable workers. In reading through hundreds of Ministry of Labour reports and court documents on workers’ injuries she found numerous references to heath and safety violations at Fiera Foods Company and Marmora Freezing Corporation, one of its partner companies.

She also discovered three deaths had occurred at Fiera or in affiliated companies. The most recent happened last year when 23-year-old Amina Diaby, a refugee from Guinea on her first job in Canada, died when her hijab was pulled into a machine as she worked on an assembly line near the conveyer belt. Diaby was hired through a temp agency and had been working at Fiera Foods for two weeks.

“We looked at all of the information and concluded that my going undercover as a temp worker was the only way to get this story. We couldn’t just ask precarious temp workers to tell us what is happening inside the factory,” Mojtehedzadeh told me this week. “In past, I have had cases of temp workers who were fired for speaking up to the Star and I did not want to put anyone at risk of losing their job.

“All of the injury data and the deaths made it clear there was a strong public interest here in the health and safety of temp workers.”

Fiera Foods has also benefited from public funding, having received some $4.7 million dollars in government loans and grants. In response to questions from the Star, the company said that health and safety is a “core principle.”

Following publication of the Star’s investigation, Fiera Foods this week was fined $300,000 after pleading guilty to charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act related to Diaby’s death. As well, the company told the Star it has hired auditors to examine its health and safety practices and temp agency contracts.

If you have not read this investigation by Mojtehedzadeh and Brendan Kennedy, who came into the project to provide further reporting, I hope you do so. Like many readers, I was stunned at what was revealed about the work conditions for these vulnerable workers, both through the undercover reporting and the more “classic” means of obtaining information.

Arguably, undercover reporting is itself a classic reporting technique. In the 2012 book, Undercover Reporting, the Truth about DeceptionUndercover Reporting, the Truth about Deception, author Brooke Kroeger argues that undercover work embodies a central discipline of good reporting: “the ability to extract significant information or to create indelible, real-time descriptions of hard-to-penetrate institutions or social situations that deserve the public’s attention.”

The New York University journalism professor has compiled an online public database on undercover reporting that provides many example of outstanding undercover reporting (including some past Toronto Star investigations) and numerous thought-provoking articles about the ethics of journalistic deception.

Star editor Michael Cooke believes strongly that “undercover reporting has a long and noble history and is often courageous work that takes perseverance.

“Look no further than Nelly Bly,” he said, referring to the legendary reporter who went undercover as a patient in a New York insane asylum in the late 1800s.

“Her sensational account of the dreadful conditions and treatment of the patients got action, fast. So Bly made life better for the mentally ill,” Cooke said. “And that’s what it’s all about … trying to make life better.”

National History Day contestants, please read this before you contact me.

The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History.  See Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.

Upcoming Events 2019-2020: August 7:  Panel, “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court.” (page 40) AEJMC, Toronto. August 14: Webinar, National Park Service. September 23: Bentson Dean’s Lecture, College of Arts and Science, New York University.October 17: Suffragents Panel, National Archives, Washington DC. [2020] June 4-6Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),”  Université de Lausanne (Switzerland).

Happened 2019: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles.  March 13: The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public LibraryMarch 25:Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City.