Notice, Undercover Reporting

“On the Edge: The Ethics of Going Undercover” – Joshua Hunt – CJR

May 8, 2021

From “On the Edge” by Joshua Hunt in the Columbia Journalism Review, April 2021:


… “Brooke Kroeger, a journalism professor at New York University and the author of Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception (2012), has for years advocated “a restoration of honor and legitimacy to the discomfiting techniques” of the practice. She supports clandestine methods mainly because of their sheer effectiveness. Around the time that Silverstein was on the trail of lobbyists, she told me, the Washington Post published an undercover series exposing the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center: Dana Priest and Anne Hull spent more than four months reporting there, absent official permission; they’d shown up at the front gate without identifying themselves as journalists and asked sources not to reveal what they were up to. “I mean, short of putting on white coats, they did everything to obscure who they were and what they were doing,” Kroeger said. “And I thought it was fine.”

“The Post got results: “Within a day after the series began, work crews were on-site upgrading the mold- and rodent-infested outpatient facilities,” Kroeger wrote in an essay, “Why Surreptitiousness Works.” “Within weeks, the hospital’s commander, the secretary of the Army, and the Army’s surgeon general had lost their jobs. Congress scheduled special field subcommittee hearings on-site at the hospital, inviting testimony from some of the reporters’ named sources. Three blue-ribbon panels began investigating how wounded U.S. soldiers who had served their country so valiantly could be treated so badly under the Army’s own watch. Praise was universal.” That included a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

“Kroeger doesn’t think undercover work should be no-holds-barred: “The rule of thumb is that when confronted, you give up and tell,” she said. But it would be a shame, she argued, if journalists limited themselves to covering only the stories to which they are granted formal access. And to the extent that the rules of conduct were designed to function within a framework of “press relations”—a world of people and institutions dominated by white, heterosexual men—the resulting journalism elevates and reproduces that perspective as the default. Of course, those best able to recede into the background of American institutions tend to be the likes of Conover, Silverstein, Priest, and Hull—all of whom are white. Journalists from marginalized backgrounds, by contrast, are well acquainted with the risk of being confronted.”