Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception

In this provocative book, Brooke Kroeger argues for a reconsideration of the place of oft-maligned journalistic practices. While it may seem paradoxical, much of the valuable journalism of the past century and a half has emerged from undercover investigations or those that employ various forms of subterfuge and deception to expose wrong. Kroeger asserts that undercover work is not a separate world but rather it 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 book’s companion Undercover Reporting database has been created in collaboration with NYU Libraries. It is a hand-curated resource for scholars, journalists and student researchers that gathers some of the best investigative work of the past nearly 200 years. It is searchable by keyword, reportorial theme, media outlet, date, or author, or can be browsed by series.

The CJR podcast titled “Brooke Kroeger,” listed midway down the page, provides a good explanation of the  project.

Undercover Reporting serves as a rallying call for an endangered aspect of the journalistic endeavor.

A downloadable postcard, front and back:

Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, author and professor of journalism at New York University.  UNDERCOVER REPORTINGThe Truth About Deception was published in 2012. Visit its companion online database at undercoverreporting.org. Her 2017 book is THE SUFFRAGENTS: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote. Previous books are the 1994 NELLIE BLY: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist; a second biography, FANNIE: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst, published in 1999; and PASSING: When People Can’t Be Who They Are, which was first published in 2003. Her freelanced work has appeared in various magazines, journals, and newspapers and earlier in her career, she served as UN Correspondent for Newsday and as a deputy metropolitan editor for New York Newsday. For United Press International in its Scripps Howard days, she had postings in Chicago, Brussels, London and Tel Aviv, where she was bureau chief for three years before returning to London to serve as the agency’s chief editor for its Europe, the Middle East and Africa division. She also served two terms, from 2005 to 2011, as chair and director of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where she continues to direct the graduate faculty’s Global and Joint Program Studies.

From the Preface: “This book unabashedly celebrates the great American journalistic tradition of undercover reporting and offers an argument, built on the volume of evidence, for the restoration of its once- honored place in the array of effective journalistic techniques. Even the most cursory analysis of a century and a half of significant undercover investigations by journalists makes clear how effective the practice can be. Repeatedly, they have proved their worth as producers of high-impact public awareness or as hasteners of change. Like almost no other journalistic approach, undercover reporting has a built- in ability to expose wrongs and wrongdoers or perform other meaningful public service. It can illuminate the unknown, it can capture and sustain attention, it can shock or amaze. The criticism that has bedeviled the practice in more recent years comes from the ethical compromises it inevitably requires, its reliance on some of journalism’s most questionable means, and the unacceptable excesses of the few. Deception not only happens in the course of reporting undercover, it is intrinsic to the form. For would- be truth tellers, this is a shaky ground. Yet at its best, undercover reporting achieves most of the things great journalism means to achieve. At its worst, but no worse than bad journalism in any form, it is not only an embarrassment but can be downright destructive. This book suggests that the capacity of undercover reporting to bring important social issues to public attention and thus to motivate reformers to act far outweighs the objections against it, legitimate though they may be. Its benefits, when used selectively, far outweigh the lapses, which, it turns out, are more of a preoccupation in only some quarters of the profession than they are with the public. . . . “

Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.