NOTICE: GIJN (Global Investigative Journalism Network) Guide to Undercover Reporting 2022

August 1, 2022

This guide was written by GIJN’s Resource Center director Nikolia Apostolou and GIJN reporter Rowan Philp. Editing was by Reed Richardson and Laura Dixon. Illustrations are by Smaranda Tolosano.

Across the world undercover investigations have produced extraordinary, impactful journalism. In countries without public record transparency rules or strong source protection laws, going undercover can be one of the few tools reporters have to reveal public interest stories.

This GIJN guide provides advice from seasoned investigative journalists and showcases great case studies from around the world. But it also highlights mistakes reporters have made and the many ethical considerations that must be weighed before undertaking an undercover report.

Sections of this guide include:

Practical Tips Tools and Gear Ethics / Concerns Successful Case Studies Cautionary Tales First-Hand Lessons from the FieldBefore any journalist commences any type of undercover or clandestine operation, it is imperative that they educate themselves on their country’s legal and cultural framework around recording without consent. In many parts of the world, reporters may face protracted legal action, government detention, and even physical danger for secretly filming or recording someone without their knowledge.

Undercover Reporting book cover

NYU professor Brooke Kroeger is author of “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception.” Image: Screenshot

“This is expensive work, it ties up staff for months on end, it’s stressful, and it requires all kinds of legal vetting, so you really should think hard before undertaking something like this,” says New York University professor Brooke Kroeger, author of the book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception.” “But, historically, the impact of these stories, when they worked, was just extraordinary. And they are the stories we remember.”

. . .
Value of Surreptitious Reporting

In her book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception,” Brooke Kroeger – a journalism professor at New York University – argues that the practice has been unfairly maligned and that it has, in fact, outperformed other forms of journalism in terms of accountability impact in the past 150 years.

. . . Kroeger’s research has been expanded into an archive of hundreds of impactful “surreptitious investigations” – Undercoverreporting.org – in a collaboration with NYU Libraries that focuses largely on work from North America.

“Women reporters, in particular, have made a major contribution to quality undercover reporting.” — Brooke Kroeger says that while responsible undercover reporting should be rare, it has been too rare in recent years – and often avoided for the wrong reasons – leading to missed opportunities in otherwise impenetrable public interest cases. She adds that it has been particularly effective in exposing abuse and poor labor conditions in workplace environments.

She describes five types of surreptitious reporting, and says each one requires different levels of ethical and legal vetting.

Consumer journalism testing. Kroeger says there are no ethical barriers to a reporter simply replicating a consumer experience. For instance, journalists could order a car repair to check for over-charging. While normal journalistic right-of-reply principles apply ahead of publication, she says no special vetting is needed. Eavesdropping. Kroeger says listening in on conversations – and disguising your reporting role to get into earshot – can be justified, where the unguarded comments of public officials can be shown to be essential in a vital public interest story. Here, legal advice about local and national privacy rules should be clearly understood if any recording devices are used. Sources should also be offered the opportunity to clarify or explain their comments, and audiences should be informed about how the quotes were gathered. Public institutions. Journalists are free to wander the same hallways the public can visit – but Kroeger says reporters sometimes need to subtly disguise their true roles to avoid challenges and extend their time in an institution. These passive tactics include avoiding press badges, not proactively declaring their reporter status, and using nuanced misdirection, like carrying a clipboard or dressing like other regular visitors. However, she says reporters should avoid active deception in these cases – like wearing a white coat and stethoscope, or wearing a specific symbol, tattoo, or partisan identifier. She emphasizes that reporters on these projects should immediately acknowledge their press status if directly asked or challenged. Kroeger says this method should involve ethical and strategy discussions with editors and an outside advisor. Hidden camera projects. Kroeger says in-depth legal and ethical advice should accompany the use of hidden cameras, both before and after filming, and that the evidence obtained should be contextualized by plenty of traditional reporting. Deep undercover. Kroeger believes taking a job under a false pretext, or posing as a role player in a scheme under investigation – especially one involving a crime – must always involve careful planning, and extensive legal, ethical, and safety vetting at every stage. Any alternative methods to gathering the facts must be actively sought.Kroeger notes that women reporters, in particular, have made a major contribution to quality undercover reporting – most famously Nellie Bly, who exposed institutional brutality by posing as a psychiatric patient at an asylum in New York in the late 19th century.

Key Principles

First, do no harm. Kroeger says journalists need to ensure their undercover work does not pose risks or deny crucial services to members of the community. For instance, she says reporters should not take a bed in a mental health institution or elder care center if that bed is needed by someone requiring real care. Never break the law. Journalists need to be briefed beforehand on the legal perils of their project and reporting strategy to know where the legal lines are drawn. Effort translates to trust. Kroeger says projects in which reporters have taken the time and energy to experience a situation for weeks or more typically generate more respect from audiences than brief, hidden-camera stings. Avoid direct lies – and especially any clear falsehoods in writing, or on any documents that require a signature. Kroeger says “artful dodges” and other forms of deception are acceptable in cases where it is required to obtain facts in matters of major public interest. “But you absolutely should avoid outright lying,” she advises. Consult outside advisors and legal advice when deciding on the undercover project, the acceptable strategies, and the publishable facts. In addition to your reporting team’s multiple editors, lawyers, and another independent advisor from outside your organization make for good sounding boards. “You need some very detached person to keep you on the straight and narrow,” she says. Rely on past undercover experience to inform questions for separate, data-driven stories that can be done from the newsroom. Kroeger says one undercover reporter noticed evidence of fraud while investigating a separate safety issue at a US hospital, which triggered a separate story. “You wouldn’t think to ask for those records unless you had witnessed [the problem],” she notes.

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