Undercover Journalism Debated

Media History

The reporting was intended for these media types: Magazine, Newspaper, Radio, Television, Internet

"Undercover Reporting: The Myth of Ethical Deception" - Ashley Csanady - The Elements of "PIRC" WIki

Exploring the Qualms with Undercover Reporting. Can Lies Reveal Truth?"

Friday, December 24, 2010

". . . But just as police operations are limited by society’s distaste for entrapment, so too is a journalist’s ability to deceive hindered by circumstance. Public trust in the media to report the truth cannot be maintained if journalists fail to tell the truth as they report (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2007, p.97); however, it wasn’t until I tried my hand at a deception-based story that I understood undercover was no exception to the rule. . . . "

"Critic's Notebook; Repercussions of Getting a Story by Sneaky Means" - Walter Goodman - New York Times

Thursday, January 16, 1997

". . .This case puts reporters on notice that they had better stay away from undercover investigations, with or without cameras. Getting past company guards is not easy. If a reporter takes a job with the purpose of exposing practices a company would prefer to keep it to itself, must he now worry about being sued for breach of 'duty of loyalty' to the company he is out to expose? Does that apply, too, to whistle blowers, those real employees who tip off the reporter? Isn't the television program or the newspaper the reporter's true employer? Wouldn't it be a breach of duty of loyatly if he didn't do whatever he could to get the story? . . ."

"The Lying Game" - Susan Paterno - AJR

"Debate over lying to get a story has intensified in the wake of the Food Lion case. Defenders say deception sometimes is critical in reporting important stories. But a mounting chorus of criticism decries the practice as overdone, bad for journalism's credibility - and just plain wrong."


"Journalists are then left holding a moral compass, charged with finding ways through the ethical thicket of the First Amendment's liberties...."

"Exposure of Corruption Raises Questions About Reporters’ Masquerade" - Deirdre Carmody - New York Times


"Sun-Times photographers posing as repairmen took pictures of payoffs to inspectors from a hidden camera loft in the bar, which they called the Mirage. Two reporters, Pamela Zekman and Zay N. Smith, and two investigators from the Better Government Association in Chicago posed as waitress, bartenders and owner. They documented payoffs of $10 to $100 to city inspectors who ignored health and safety hazards...that the Sun-Times estimated cost the state of Illinois $16 million a year in sales tax alone and illegal kickbacks, tax skimming and offers of political fixes from jukebox and pinball machine operators."

"Prizefights: Donnybrook" - Myra McPherson - Washington Post

The Rites of Spring and the Cries of Foul


"Pulitzers: Was Mirage a Deception?" - Columbia Journalism Review


"James Reston helped to define the issue when he reportedly drew a distinction between 'pretense' and 'deception' at the [Pulitzer] board meeting. Pretense, in this scheme is a passive act: the reporter allows someone to draw the wrong conclusion about who he is or what he knows. Deception, however, is active; the reporter intends to mislead. 'It's biblical, man,' says [Ben] Bradlee of the Post. 'How can newspapers fight for honesy and integrity when they themslevse are less than honest in getting a story? Would you want a cop to pose as a newspaperman?' Other board members, however, admit that they have allowed reporters to conceal their identities in the past, and most reserve the right to do so in the future."

"Should Reporters Play Roles?" - Clayton Kirkpatrick & Gene Patterson - ASNE Bulletin

Responses of two members of the Pulitzer Board


"I voted for the revised ethical code approved by ASNE in 1975, and I am sure he did also. There is no specific prohibition of role-playing in that statement of principles." (Kirkpatrick)"I reserve the right to infiltrate reporters if fakery is truly the last resort and the only way to serve a vital public interest." (Patterson)

"Undercover Reporting Backed by Readers" - Editor & Publisher


"The daily's study, which queried 603 local residents, showed a majority of them support undercover reporting tactics involving hidden cameras, microphones and concealed identities. "When asked how important it is for a newspaper 'to do this type of investigative reporting' 77% responded 'very important,' 19% said 'somewhat important' while only 2% opted for 'not at all important.'"

"How (Un)Acceptable Is Research Involving Deception?" - Charles P. Smith - IRB: Ethics and Human Research


"The use of deception in research has sparked considerable controvery. At one extreme are authors who object deception in principle and who aver that alternative research approaches are feasible. Differing sharply are those who feel that the use of deception is legitimate and that it is necessary in the sense that some problems are not investigable by any means."

"Deception in News Gathering by Investigative Reporters" - Margaret Elaine Regus - Dissertation


". . .Also, there is no consensus on whether deceptive practices are justified. Nowadays, a seminar on reporting techniques is hardly complete without a debate on the pros and cons of deception by reporters. Questions about the use of deception are being raised with increased frequency in college ethics classes, media seminars, and editorial meetings. . ."

"Times' Bernheimer Wins Pulitzer for Music Criticism" - John J. Goldman - Los Angeles Times


"The Herald-Examiner's series, based on reporter Merle Linda Wolin's experiences as an undercover worker in the garment factories, was the jury's unanimous first choice for the award."The board objected to the series partly because the reporter posed as an illegal alien to gain jobs in the sweatshops, according to members of the jury. Other sources said the board did not consider any of the jury's recommendations to be first-rate entries. "Anticipating that Wolin might be accused of deception, the jury submitted a confidential report defending its choice of her series. The jurors said they, too, believed that reporters generally should not misrepresent themselves but said that sweatshop 'conditions' could not have been fully explored in any other way . . . "

"Journalism Under Fire" - William A. Henry III - Time Magazine

A growing perception of arrogance threatens American press


". . .Another factor in provoking distrust is the suspicion that journalists care little about accuracy. When the Washington Post, New York Times and New York Daily News all discovered, during 1981 and 1982, that they had printed stories that reporters had embellished or invented, much of the public took extreme cases as typical of journalism and expressed delight that major news organizations had been humiliated. . ."

"Legal Brief: Undercover Probe Winds Up In Court" - Dale Spencer - IRE Journal


". . .The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court to the Western District of Missouri claiming that the undercover news operation had raised issues that had caused damage to the hospital. . ."

"Journalism - 4 Cases: What Would You Do?" - Christopher Scanlan - St. Petersburg Times


"Is it proper for reporters to pretend to be what they are not to get a story - posing as bar owners for instance, to expose graft and corruption involving city officials? . . . "

"Beyond the Muckrakers" - Edmund B. Lambeth - IRE Journal

"In Search of an Ethic for Investigative Reporting"


". . .The process of ethical judgement is an act of valuing, and valuing occurs at several levels. It can be argued for example, that actively deceiving might permit greater proximity to the facts, placing a reporter closer to the truth than would second-hand, derivative methods. . ."

"Survey on TV Reporting: How We Think About Surveillance Journalism" - Charles Burke - IRE Journal


". . .Virtually all support the use of hidden cameras and mikes, when deemed necessary, in TV investigations. They do so to virtually the same extent irrespective of their job classifications. They are, however, less sanguine about going 'undercover' . . ."

"Trying to Stir Public Awareness" - James Ettema - IRE Journal


". . .'There are lots of stories about social issues that are interesting,' Zekman says, 'but unless they have that investigative edge, I'm not interested' . . ."

"An Analysis of the Ethics of an Unconventional Method of Reporting in the American Press" - Machelle Lanae Bush - Dissertation


"One of the chief aims of the American journalist is to serve the public's right to know. This goal to provide the public with important information often leads journalists to use questionable methods to obtain information for a story, such as the use of deception, misrepresentation, and subterfuge. Yet, in some instances, this method of unconventional newsgathering has led to the reformation of institutions within society and recognition for the reporter."

"An Awakening: Murrow and the Migrants" - Dale Wright Interview from Robert Miraldi's "Muckraking and Objectivity"


"To Sting or Not to Sting?" - Marcel Dufresne - Columbia Journalism Review


"Newsday's staff devised the undercover plan in 1989 during early reporting for a groundbreaking series about segregation. If the scheme worked, it would expose an ugly and illegal discriminatory practice. But it also raised questions about deception, among other things."

"Hidden Network Cameras: A Troubling Trend" - Howard Kurtz - Washington Post


"Getting the Truth Untruthfully" - Colman McCarthy - The Washington Post


". . .Other ways - truthful, ethical - exist besides hidden camera footage to nab wrongdoers. Classic investigative reporting relies on public documents, skilled interviewing, exhaustive research and cross-checking. Why should electronic journalists exempt themselves from the rules of fairness? . . ."

"Truth, Lies, and Videotape" - Russ Baker - Columbia Journalism Review


". . .But it wasn't always that healthy. Despite voluminous hype, PrimeTime Live was practically born PrimeTime Dead. 'It was supposed to be the second coming of broadcast news,' recalls Eric Mink, TV critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 'Instead, it was a laughingstock' . . ."

"Out of Sight" - Robert Lissit - American Journalism Review

Producers are unsung, unknown - and essential to the success of television news-magazines


"Phillips' credit on the story, aired on "PrimeTime Live" in May 1994, read "Producer." Many viewers probably didn't notice it. And if they did, most of them would have no idea what Phillips and his fellow producers do. But they play a crucial role in a network newsmagazine industry that, this season, will generate revenues estimated at $1 billion."

"Gotcha!" - Robert Lissit - AJR

"Prime-Time Live" popularized the use of hidden cameras and local stations rely on them for dramatic, high-impact footage. Their prevalence has provoked debate over how and whether they should be used – and lawsuits.


"Steele thinks hidden cameras can serve a valuable purpose, but says that 'journalists have misused and overused [them]. They're an important tool to have in a journalistic bag, but we should use them judiciously, conservatively and with the recognition that the stakes are very high, because the consequences for those individuals who are the subject of hidden cameras can be dire and the impact on journalistic credibility profound.'"

"Debating Deception" - Rosemary Armao - IRE Journal


". . .Juries, however, and the public we don't talk to enough about such matters, sometimes don't make the distinctions between important, solid journalism and sleaze. The really scary thing is that many newsroom decision-makers don't either. . ."

"Undercover Journalism" - Clarence Page - Chicago Tribune (syndicated)


" . . . Some say journalism will be better off without undercover journalism. There are better ways to get a story, they say. Sure. But not all stories."Undercover reporting was never meant to replace other, less dramatic forms of investigative journalism. But it tells some stories better than any other form. . . . "

"In Greensboro: Damning Undercover Tactics as 'Fraud'" - Russ Baker - Columbia Journalism Review

Can Reporters Lie About Who They Are? The Food Lion Jury Says No.


". . .It was not about the merits of ABC's 1992 PrimeTime Live report, which chronicled what appeared to be a range of stomach-turning food-handling practices in deli and meat departments of the grocery chain, based in Salisbury, North Carolina. Food Lion v. ABC was not a libel case. Although the 1,100-store chain has maintained that the report was false, it did not sue over the question of truth. . ."

"The Lion's Share" - Marc Gunther - American Journalism Review

Rather than attacking courts for unfavorable outcomes like the one in the Food Lion case, journalists should face up to their own shortcomings and be more careful in their reporting.


". . .When a Greensboro, North Carolina, jury found that ABC News' 'PrimeTime Live' had broken the law in its hidden-camera investigation of the Food Lion supermarket chain, journalists, media lawyers and defenders of the First Amendment denounced the verdict. There were dire predictions about the 'chilling effect' of the jury's decision and its subsequent $5.5 million award of punitive damages. . ."

"Practicing Deception in the Pursuit of Truth" - Marvin Kalb - The Washington Post


"Should journalists lie, as they pursue the noble goal of informing the public? Put more charitably, if the word "lying" is too harsh, should journalists masquerade as meat packers in a supermarket to get a story, engage in a bit of clever misrepresentation and bluffing to trick a source, use "lipstick" cameras hidden in wigs and tiny microphones pinned to brassieres to succeed in undercover reporting, produce (in the words of one NPR reporters) "cockamamie cover stories" to protect an exclusive? In other words, in an industry theoretically still devoted to truth-telling, can deception, in whatever guise, be regarded as an acceptable way of getting the news? . . ."

"Prying, Spying, and Lying: Intrusive Newsgathering and What the Law Should Do About It" - Lyrissa Barnett Lidsky - Tulane Law Review


"Prying, spying, and lying are tools of the trade to a significant portion of today's 'gotcha' journalists. Market pressures require journalists not just to get the story, but to cast it in a dramatic way. Journalists therefore resort to a variety of intrusive newsgathering tools: they adopt false identities and employ hidden cameras, they hound subjects in the streets and stake out their home, they trail police into the homes of crime suspects and crime victims, and they follow ambulance workers to obtain graphic footage or accident scenes."

"Trash Tort or Trash TV?: Food Lion, Inc. V. ABC, Inc., and Tort Liability of the Media for Newsgathering" - Charles C. Scheim - St. John's Law Review


". . .Subjects of unfavorable or intrusive media investigations have changed legal tactics and have brought actions against the media under tort theories that differ from the traditional suits in defamation and libel. Media supporters have called these suits a "wave of `trash torts.'" Rather than seeking damages for the publication of injurious reports, plaintiffs have claimed that the newsgathering activities of the media prior to publication were tortious. Such plaintiffs have argued that the media does not have any special constitutional protections in gathering news, seizing upon the Supreme Court's general statement that 'generally applicable laws do not offend the First Amendment simply because their enforcement against the press has incidental effects on its ability to gather and report the news' . . ."

"Expanding Dangers" - Sandra Davidson - IRE Journal


". . .The judge in the case said something every journalist should remember: The First Amendment is not a license to trespass, to steal, or intrude by electronic means into the precincts of another's home of office. It does not become such a license simply because the person subjected to the intrusion is reasonably suspected of committing a crime. . ."

"Apologies to ABC, Producers" - IRE Journal Staff - IRE Journal


". . .While preparing her article, Davidson did not attempt to contact either ABC or the producers, and Journal editor Steve Weinberg did not ensure that Davidson did so in the editing nor did he. . ."

"Protecting the Press from Privacy" - John H. Fuson - University of Pennsylvania Law Review


"Walter Cronkite's direct yet comforting closing to the evening new evoked the idyllic American image of journalism: the facts, plain and simple, honestly presented, without spin or dirt. The romanticized promise of First Amendment protections for a free press—that dutiful reporters would keep citizens informed about important public matters so that they might exercise a sound and reasonable check on the powers of government at the ballot box—was captured in that simple phrase. . ."

"Irresponsible Journalists are Jeopardizing Serious Investigations by the Press" - Christopher H. Pyle - The Chronicle of Higher Education


"In this century, there have been two great eras in American investigative journalism. The first, in the early 1900's, was led by muckraking journalists Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. Tarbell's massive history in the Standard Oil Company helped break up that monopoly. Sinclair's 'The Jungle,' which exposed unsanitary conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry, led to the Pure Food and Drug Act. . ."

"When Undercover Was King" - Michael Miner - Chicago Reader

More Bleeding at the Sun-Times


". . . By 1988, when Gaines won his second Pulitzer, the task force and, for that matter, undercover reporting itself were history. For half a year he and reporter Ann Marie Lipinski and associate metro editor Dean Baquet pored over records and conducted interviews, and in the end the Pulitzer board honored "their detailed reporting on the self-interest and waste that plague Chicago's City Council." Gaines focused on zoning--the way it works and how the way it works lines pockets. "The day after the hospital series broke, the board of health held an emergency meeting. The two hospitals soon went out of business, and Gaines and Crawford testified before a U.S. Senate committee. When I asked what the Tribune's pore-by-pore examination of the City Council accomplished, Gaines said, 'That's a tough one. I'd have to say it just educated people to how the City Council worked. It put it all in one big story people could read. I don't think it reformed one thing.' "Neither did the Tribune's eight-month examination of the City Council ten years later--a study the paper in 1997 hailed as a 'fascinating window into the inner workings of government in Chicago.' Gaines worked on that one too. 'I was able to get into even more depth on how zoning works,' he says. 'I think you could do a City Council series every year--every six months.' "The difference between Gaines's two Pulitzers was the difference between bagging an elk with a gun and bagging the whole herd with a camera. . . . "

"When Will Waitresses Write Their Own Books?" - Lauren Sandler - Newsday


". . .Established, well-paid writers may be getting magazine commissions and book contracts to write about the hardships of low-wage America (and too rarely at that), but where is the opportunity to read actual real-life experience, not just an undercover facsimile? What we never get are stories told without the elite mediation of a 'professional.' These books, no matter how noble, still smack of downward tourism. . ."

"Undercover Journalism's Last Call" - Michael Miner - Chicago Reader


". . . The strange thing about the Mirage series is that a charge of inauthenticity did it in. It was condemned as an antic, a sleight-of-hand unworthy of journalism's highest honors. "A historic project, it had a historic fall. I found the spot in News Values where Fuller talks about the Mirage--it's in a chapter called 'Deception and Other Confidence Games.' "Fuller begins by recalling how he broke in as a police reporter, working with old-timers that Hecht and MacArthur 'used as models for characters' in The Front Page. He wasn't as wily as they were, 'but I did become a passable liar in pursuit of the truth.' "He admits to the 'thrill' he'd personally felt going undercover. 'Deception carried a hint of danger that ordinary investigative techniques simply did not have. Perhaps I sensed something forbidden about it, the secrecy, the betrayal. Or perhaps it was the recognition that deception invites rage and retribution. The feeling was not entirely pleasant, but still when it was over, I wanted to feel it again.' "That's how we talk about sin. Fuller's notion of journalistic sin is more expansive than mine, and when it occurs he's less willing to forgive it. News Values is up to the important business of setting journalism on a new foundation more honorable than the old, but Fuller sweeps undercover journalism into a bin with a lot of old-time techniques we can agree were outrageous, like stealing photos and posing as a cop. . . . "

"Silenced for Their Work: Journalists Are at Risk Throughout the World" - Abi Wright - IRE Journal


". . .Tim Lopes, 50, was a TV news reporter investigating a story about traffickers abusing drugs and minors in Brazil's favela, or slums. . .He was filming undercover when he was discovered to be a reporter. According to two suspects, Lopes was kidnapped, beaten, shot in the feet to keep him from escaping, and sentenced to death at a mock trial. . ."

"'But I'm One of the Good Guys!'" - Monica Bhogal - The Guardian (UK)

When Reporters Go Undercover, it is Often They Who End Up in Trouble with the Police Instead of the People They are trying to Expose.


". . .The practice of undercover reporting is widely used by journalists and is regarded in most instances as a valid method of exposing individuals and organisations for their involvement in activities that may range from the criminal to the morally reprehensible to the laughable. But the legal implications for undercover reporters are also wide-ranging. Reporters face the risk that, in seeking to expose crime or iniquity, they themselves become embroiled in the behaviour that they were seeking to reprimand. . ."

“By a Back Door to the U.S.: A Migrant’s Grim Sea Voyage; Dangerous Passage: From Ecuador by Sea” - Ginger Thompson and Sandra Ochoa - New York Times


". . .In collaboration with The New York Times, a reporter from El Tiempo, a newspaper in Cuenca, Ecuador, took the eight-day voyage, covering 1,100 nautical miles from a cove near this scruffy Ecuadorean beach resort to the northern coast of Guatemala. Her journey as a client of smugglers -- and sometimes a hostage -- provides a rare look inside one small part of the vast pipeline that carries untold numbers of migrants to the United States each year. . ."

"Media Law: Keep Your Distance: There Is Often a Fine Line Between Reporting Crimes and Encouraging Criminals" - Duncan Lamont - The Guardian (UK)

Duncan Lamont Explains How to Stay on the Right Side of the Law


". . .But when newspapers get too close to criminals, or criminal conduct, there can be unexpected repercussions. The media are not protected from the criminal law by any special reporting dispensation. When BBC reporter Mark Daly went undercover to film The Secret Policeman in Manchester, for example, he was arrested for obtaining a pecuniary advantage (his wages) by deception, and damaging police property. . ."

"Reckless Acts" - Chris Halsne - The IRE Journal

Public officials flouting law by driving drunk, speeding in vehicles paid for with tax money.


". . .Our investigative producer, Bill Benson, went to work tracking down the most serious cases so we could add examples into our television story. He started with drunken driving and negligent driving cases. Remember: The data we received with our request was void of personal information. The computer did, however, give us a location of the traffic stop, time of day, a mile post, and even a notation if a citation was issued because of an accident. We could figure out which district or traffic court held the case file by mapping the mile post. After that, it was as simple as thumbing through files to spot notations by police that identified government cars involved. Sometimes the driver's 'occupation' field gave us solid leads as well. . ."

"Paper's Subterfuge Appears Judicious" - Edward Wasserman - syndicated


"And at a time when the media believe that the public mistrusts their methods and motives, local-news chiefs long for civic causes that are both bold and unassailable—like rescuing all the cats from the trees, whatever the cost, dammit."

"Undercover Journalism and Ethics" - Editorial - The Hindu (India)


". . .The central point is that investigative journalism that insists on going after information through deception and invasion of privacy can have only one serious defence: a larger social purpose. Undercover investigations by journalists go back a long way. It was in 1887 that the celebrated Nellie Bly feigned illness, got herself admitted to a notoriously ill-administered New York lunatic asylum, and wrote a powerful expose that hastened legal reforms relating to the treatment of the mentally ill. . ."

"Spurned in Spokane" - Edward Wasserman - Knight Ridder Tribune News Service


". . .The profession has turned against false pretenses. The reasons vary. There’s an unease about deception: If your job is to tell the truth you shouldn’t be lying. That seems high-minded, but it’s a cheap way around deciding whether the truth you’re after might justify the dissembling required to get it. . ."

"Undercover Journalism and Credibility" - James Walker - PressEthic Blog


". . .Firstly there is the ethical conundrum of whether the ends justifies the means. If a journalist uncovers information that needs to be brought to the attention of the public, does that therefore justify the clandestine methods used to obtain that information? The concern is that the deceit on the part of the journalist sullies the critical information that is uncovered. Does a journalist dampen his credibility through the use of lies and chicanery? . . ."

"Reporting Undercover in Zimbabwe" - Jason Beaubien and Steve Inskeep - NPR (Zimbabwe)


". . .'Yeah. Zimbabwe is an incredibly difficult place to report at the moment. You can't report openly. Foreign journalists can't get visas to get in. If you do go in, you'd have to go through a very lengthy media accreditation process, which would probably end up with you not being accredited. So the only way to get in is to sneak in as a tourist' . . ."

"The Shame Game" - Douglas McCollam - Columbia Journalism Review

“To Catch a Predator” is propping up NBC’s Dateline, but at what cost?


"It was just before 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon last November when a contingent of police gathered outside the home of Louis Conradt Jr., a longtime county prosecutor living in the small community of Terrell, Texas, just east of Dallas. Though the fifty-six-year-old Conradt was a colleague of some of the officers, they hadn’t come to discuss a case or for a backyard barbeque. Rather, the veteran district attorney, who had prosecuted hundreds of felonies during more than two decades in law enforcement, was himself the target of an unusual criminal probe. For weeks the police in the nearby town of Murphy had been working with the online watchdog group Perverted Justice and producers from Dateline NBC’s popular “To Catch a Predator” series in an elaborate sting operation targeting adults cruising the Internet to solicit sex from minors. Dateline had leased a house in an upscale subdivision, outfitted it with multiple hidden cameras, and hired actors to impersonate minors to help lure suspects into the trap. As with several similar operations previously conducted by Dateline, there was no shortage of men looking to score with underage boys and girls. In all, twenty-four men were caught in the Murphy sting, including a retired doctor, a traveling businessman, a school teacher, and a Navy veteran . . ."

"Uncovering Misery at Walter Reed" - Lori Robertson - American Journalism Review


Q: Can you talk just a little bit about when and how this story began? Dana Priest: We got a tip from someone that neither one of us knew and went out to an initial meeting with this person. And the person had had contact with some families at Walter Reed, and those families had told the person about their story ... And then it evolved like really any kind of basic investigative stuff does. You create a net; the net grows. Those initial families put us on to other families and other families and soldiers along the way and eventually staff members and former staff members.

"Ethics of NBC's Sting Show 'To Catch a Predator'" - Neal Conan - Talk of the Nation NPR


The online watchdog group Perverted Justice lures sexual predators by posing as minors online and inviting them to meet up in person. And Dateline NBC's wildly popular "To Catch a Predator" series has captured audiences nationwide with a mix of fear and voyeurism. Guests: Douglas McCollam, attorney and contributing writer for Columbia Journalism Review Chris Hansen, host of NBC Dateline series "To Catch a Predator" Richard Rapaport, San Francisco-based freelance writer, author of "Dying and living in 'COPS' America" a critique of "To Catch a Predator." Xavier von Erck, founder of pervertedjustice.com

"Subterfuge Is 'Justifiable', Says Press Watchdog" - Stephen Brook - The Guardian (UK)


". . .'Undercover investigative work has an honourable tradition and plays a vital role in exposing wrongdoing. It is part of an open society. But it risks being devalued if its use cannot be justified in the public interest,' the watchdog says. . ."

Poll: Bill Moyers' Journal on the Validity of Undercover Reporting


Bill Moyers talks with Ken Silverstein


BILL MOYERS: Every day people from all walks of life make their way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to pay their respects to the martyred president. From here Lincoln broods over the city he imagined would become the seat of government of, by, and for the people. But this is no longer their city. or Lincoln's. This is an occupied city, a company town, whose population of lobbyists constitute the permanent government. The number of lobbyists registered to do business in Washington has more than doubled since the year 2000. There are now twenty five lobbyists for every member of Congress. This is where you start if you want to know how it is that some truly awful regimes around the world keep on winning favors from our government. I mean regimes ruled by dictators, despots, and tyrants of every kind -- governments that send their critics to prison, torture dissidents, steal from their own people, control the press, and make a mockery of human rights...yet still wind up with trade agreements, U.S. tax dollars, business deals blessed on high, and a hearty welcome in Congress and the White House. If you've ever asked yourself, why are we helping those guys, you are about to meet a tour guide of our nation's capital who can show you what dirty little secrets lie behind some of Washington's fanciest addresses and prominent letterheads.

"Stung by Harper's in a Web of Deceit" - Howard Kurtz - Washington Post


"Ken Silverstein says he lied, deceuved and fabricated to get the story. But it was worth it, he insists. Those on the receiving end don't agree. . ."

"'Gotcha' Without a 'Get'" - Matthew Felling - CBS News


"A tempest in the sweltering DC teapot has developed this past week with regards to an investigative report in the upcoming issue of Harper's. Ken Silverstein, Harper's Washington Editor, has a piece called "Their Men In Washington" that is causing some consternation in the media circles … Or at least along those mediaphiles that aren't obsessing over a certain former jailbird. In order to expose the depths and depravity of Washington, D.C.'s lobbyist community, Ken Silverstein decided to get … creative. Here's how he describes it in his own words: My story in the July issue of the magazine details how two beltway lobby shops I approached, on the pretense that I represented a shady London-based energy firm with a stake in Turkmenistan, proposed to whitewash the image of that country's Stalinist regime. He whipped up some business cards, made a website, assumed a name and began the PR courtship process with the firms APCO Worldwide and Cassidy & Associates. His article (unfortunately available only to subscribers) is a fairly by-the-numbers accounting of the back and forth he engaged in with the lobby shops, which – it would be generous to say – were rather forgiving about Turkmenistan's less savory practices. Silverstein found, unsurprisingly, that it seemed they wanted to work with him. He found that they were willing to organize tours for convincible politicians. He found that they proposed a rather typical media strategy, including op-ed placements and other attempts to generate news items about Turkmenistan. He found that they were available to do what we already know they do for clients – occasionally tuck their conscience in the attic for a check."

"Lying in the Name of Truth: When Is It Justified for Journalists?" - Bob Steele - PoynterOnline


"I don’t know enough about the extent of Silverstein’s reporting on the lobbyists story before he pulled the deception tool out of his bag. He argues it would have been “impossible” to get “the same information and insight with more conventional journalistic methods.” That’s an argument he must defend to justify his decision to misrepresent his identity."

"Can Trickery by Reporters Be Right?" - Edward Wasserman - Syndicated


"In a cover story this month, Harper's Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein described his undercover foray into hiring two top-tier D.C. lobbying firms to represent Turkmenistan, an energy-rich former Soviet republic known for gross human rights violations and anti-democratic lunacies. Silverstein was in no position to hire the firms, of course. That was a ruse. Under an assumed name he posed as an emissary from a shadowy London middleman. He created phony business cards, a British cell phone number and an e-mail address."

Over the line: the questionable tactics of "To Catch a Predator" - Deborah Potter - American Journalism Review


". . .The 'To Catch a Predator' series on 'Dateline NBC' has been a smash hit for the network's news division since it launched more than two years ago, drawing a substantial audience and public praise for bringing sex offenders to justice. But the program's tactics have always been controversial, and now they've landed NBC in court. The charge is breach of contract, but the complaint paints a picture of a program willing to cross ethical lines to win ratings. Former 'Dateline' producer Marsha Bartel, who worked at NBC for more than 20 years, was let go last December just a few months after being promoted to sole producer of the 'Predator' series. Bartel says the company told her she was being dropped in a general round of layoffs. While there's no question that NBC has been downsizing, Bartel believes she was forced out because she complained to her supervisors that the 'Predator' series repeatedly violated the standards of ethical journalism. . ."

"Lost Art of Infiltration" - William Gaines - Journalism


"No one in a newsroom today would dare suggest that a reporter get information through any kind of subterfuge and certainly not by secretly getting a job in the ranks of the target of a newspaper investigation. Such thoughts made the newspapers' lawyers very nervous in the 1970s and today I fear they would respond with derision."

"Slicing and Dicing a Newspaper" - Howard Kurtz - The Washington Post


". . .'Rethinking the newspaper isn't painful,' says Hutton, a former Detroit Free Press editor and publisher who took over in May. 'What's painful is what we've been doing, which is whittling away at the newspaper. It's the death-by-a-thousand-cuts cliche. . . . To simply continue producing the same newspaper is foolhardy. Let's stop shaving, trimming and paring, and do something from scratch.'"

"New Magazine to Feature Undercover North Korean Reporting" - Unsigned - AFP


 ". . .Asia Press said it has set up a team of the 10 North Korean volunteers who risk their lives to cover news deep inside the country with hidden cameras and other digital devices. . ."

"Year of the Fake Sting Exposed Media's Fault Lines" - Mannika Chopra - Two Circles (India)


". . .As undercover operations have escalated the public has developed a sense of doubt over the intent of stings. There is a realisation that a sting predicated on the whim of a journalist gives the media too much power. Today, sting fatigue, both within the press and within the nation has slowly begun to creep in. . ."

"Is Undercover Over?" - Aaron Swartz - FAIR

Disguise Seen as Deceit by Timid Journalists


"The piece on lobbyists, he and his editor insist, was not just done to investigate the particular lobbying firms, but to reawaken journalists to the power of undercover reporting. 'There was this meta level in the planning that asked, 'How will the journalism establishment react?'' Harper's editor Roger Hodge told a reporter (AJR, 10/07). "The fact that undercover journalism has fallen out of fashion seems to be a problem with the profession."

"Ethics Apply to Indie Media, Too" - Brett Noble - Daily Bruin

While Independent Reporters Bring News to Many, Their Methods Must Maintain Integrity


". . .The third-year history student founded The Advocate, a student-run anti-abortion magazine that has challenged polices of UCLA's Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center and Planned Parenthood, using hidden cameras and tape recorders to report on alleged illegal health care activities. . ."

"What Happened to Undercover Journalism?" - Lisa Gulya - UTNE Reader Blog


". . .Journalistic ethicists agreed that undercover reporting is pointless and unethical “when you indulge in subterfuge to merely provide the conventional wisdom with a concrete example.” The irony in that judgment, of course, is that the most successful undercover reporting often does just that, putting a face to social problems we know only vaguely about—Barbara Ehrenreich’s foray into “unskilled” work, chronicled in Nickel and Dimed, is a prime example. . ."

"The Uncharted: From Off the Bus to Meet the Press" - Jay Rosen - The Huffington Post


". . .Citizen journalism isn't a hypothetical in this campaign. It's not a beach ball for newsroom curmudgeons, either. It's Mayhill Fowler, who had been in Pennsylvania with Obama, listening to the candidate talk about Pennsylvanians to supporters in San Francisco, and hearing something that didn't sound right to her. (See Katharine Seelye's account in the New York Times.) . . ."

"Cover Ups" - Brooke Gladstone - On the Media - WNYC


"The Ethics of Undercover Journalism" - Columbia Journalism Review - Greg Marx

Why Journalists Get Squeamish over James O'Keefe's Tactics


". . . And while O’Keefe has acknowledged that, “on reflection, I could have used a different approach to this investigation,” he also told Hannity he was operating in an established tradition: “We used the same tactics that investigative journalists have been using. In all the videos I do, I pose as something I’m not to try to get to the bottom of the truth.” During the interview, he and Hannity name-checked a few specific predecessors, among them PrimeTime Live’s Food Lion investigation, 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline NBC, including its “To Catch a Predator” series. . . ."

"Did a Post Photographer Cross a Line to Get a Picture of John Hinckley?" - Andrew Alexander, Ombudsman - Washington Post


"News organizations often struggle with where to draw the liine on privacy and whether to comply with prohibitions that can be excessively restrictive. Sometimes, they consciously violate the rules -- explicit or implied -- for the public good. Several years ago {Michel) duCille visited a patient treatment center with cameras hidden in a gym bag to document substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medica Center . . . "

"A cheap way to deliver quick results as newspapers slug it out in hard times" - Phillip Knightley - The Independent


". . .The ethics about undercover reporting are far from clear. The journalist has to weigh the public interest of the story and the importance of what is being revealed, against the opprobrium of the technique and the victim's feeling, often shared by the reader, that they have been lied to and deceived. Donal MacIntyre, who went undercover many times for the BBC, said: 'The golden rule is this: as an undercover reporter you must never encourage anyone to say or do anything they would not otherwise do if you had not been there' . . ."

"A decade of being the man behind the mask" - Unsigned - China Daily/Asia News Network


". . .I have been punched many times and was once exposed while investigating a secret industry. A man threatened to kill me if I reported the truth, so I never did.That's the reason I never use my real name in my articles and am wearing a mask today. . ."

"Outing Case: Cries of 'Hypocrite' for Pastor, Magazine" – Jeff Strickler - Minneapolis Star-Tribune


"A Minneapolis gay magazine story allegedly 'outing' a minister based on comments he made during a therapy session is generating a flood of controversy, both about the minister and the magazine's reporting techniques. . ."

"To Investigate and Advocate" - Michael Miner - Chicago Reader

The Better Government Association was in on some of the most exciting investigative reporting of yore. But director Andy Shaw says just exposing wrongdoing is no longer enough.


"From 1970, the year I arrived here, through 1976, the Chicago press took ten Pulitzers. Half went to writers and photographers at the Sun-Times, which has won a single Pulitzer (for Jack Higgins's cartoons in 1989) since Rupert Murdoch took over the paper in 1984. The Trib has won four Pulitzers in this century, but only one since 2003. Papers that don't win Pulitzers say they're no way to keep score, but the disdain of Pulitzer judges for papers controlled by Murdoch (and his successors, notably Conrad Black) and Sam Zell is shared by a lot of the Tribune's and Sun-Times's former readers. So many people I know buy only the New York Times that I feel like a bit of a damned fool when I say I subscribe to all three. I know what they're thinking: Well, you have to, it's your job. "Back in the day, the essential Chicago newspaper project was the hard-hitting investigation, naming names and kicking butt. Journalism is never more fun than when the facts are lined up and the presses are about to roll. Unfortunately, in desperate times publishers have awakened to the reality that serious investigations are not only very expensive but of no interest to lots of readers—which means too often we get them quick and cheesy or not at all. . . . "

"Stingers From Our Past" - Joel Meares - CJR

James O’Keefe’s predecessors, their stings, and their ethics


With James O’Keefe’s latest video sting taking two scalps at NPR this week, we thought it timely to revisit some infamous recent and not-so-recent journalistic stings. From The Mirage Tavern to, yes, James O’Keefe—we didn’t go back so far as Nellie Bly—we’re checking out what happened in each case, what went down after the sting went public, and then giving our thoughts on just how much merit the controversial deception approach had in each case.  How exactly do we assess such a thing? It’s not scientific. But Poynter’s Bob Steele has ventured in the past to provide a checklist of rather strict guidelines that must all be adhered to if deception is to be justified in journalism. These include: the information obtained being in the public interest; all alternative methods of obtaining the information being exhausted; the story being told fully; any harm prevented outweighing the harm caused by the deception; and all ethical and legal issues being closely considered. With those in mind, and the particulars of each case on hand, here’s our trip down an ethically murky memory lane.

"NPR video stings ethics too" - James Rainey - Los Angeles Times

Secret recordings like the ones that took down NPR's Ron Schiller and embarrassed Republican Gov. Scott Walker signal a disturbing move away from transparency in news gathering.


Here come the blockbuster news alerts. First: Governor of Wisconsin ready to demonize unions by planting protests with anti-labor thugs. And then this: Top NPR executive cozies up to nefarious Muslims, loathes real, God-fearing Americans.Talk about big news! Talk about changing the conversation! Talk about … a load of hooey, brought to you by your friendly purveyors of ambush "journalism," secret recordings and ham acting designed to draw out the worst in others.

"Brooke Kroeger on James O'Keefe and Undercover Reporting: A CJR Podcast" - Joel Meares - Columbia Journalism Review


 Kroeger explains her undercoverreporting.org database and the pro-undercover argument presented in her 2012 book, Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception. and talks about why provenance is less important than ethical and careful method when it comes to using surreptitious techniques. 

"Journalistic Stings Go Mainstream" - Edward Wasserman - Miami Herald


"Here's a problem of professional ethics right out of today's headlines: If a news organization prohibits its own staff from using certain reporting techniques—say, deception—should it publish information that somebody else gathered using those same forbidden techniques? Consider the resurgence of journalistic stings engineered by free-swinging ideologues to embarrass political opponents. Stings are a kind of undercover reporting in which targets are lured into fabricated situations intended to make them look bad. Most recently, a major fund raiser for National Public Radio was secretly videotaped in a Georgetown restaurant by two men posing as potential contributors. The official, Ron Schiller, made disparaging remarks about the Tea Party and acquiesced in offensive comments about Zionist influence made by the phonies, who claimed to be from some Islamic foundation. The video got picked up by established news media, Schiller, scheduled to leave NPR for a position with the Aspen Institute, lost both jobs, and NPR boss Vivian Schiller (no relation) was forced out."

"Brooke Kroeger on James O'Keefe and Undercover Reporting: A CJR Podcast" - Editors - CJR


". . . In this conversation, Kroeger argues that undercover reporting is incredibly valuable for its power to reveal truths and affect reform in our society, and that it should not be dismissed by the more traditional journalistic community; just look at the results, she says. In fact, she points out, mainstream news outlets have often partnered with advocacy groups to do this kind of work, all throughout the history of journalism in the US. . . . "

"The Bureau applauds the Guardian's pursuit of NI, but undercover reporting is still important" - The Bureau of Investigative Journalism


". . .The Guardian has shown how reporters and investigators working for News International abandoned the principle of public interest and the need for prima facie evidence to justify its investigations. . ."

"Cryptic Message Triggers Fears Over Fate of Chinese Reporter's Investigative Team" - Jonathan Watts - The Guardian (UK)

Journalist Wang Keqin Causes Alarm with Blogpost Amid Claims Officials are Targeting his China Economic Times Newspaper


". . .Wang Keqin, a pioneer of in-depth and undercover reporting over the past decade, caused alarm with a cryptic message on his Sina Weibo microblog about taboos and silencing speech. "Where political power burns books, it will also ultimately burn people also," he wrote.Associates said senior officials were targeting his newspaper – China Economic Times – and its investigative news department was being broken up. . ."

"The Observatory; Heartland, Gleick, and Media Law" - Curtis Brainard - CJR

Experts Weigh in on Leaks and Deceptive Tactics


"Vietnam: Four-Year Jail Sentence For Undercover Reporting Into Police Corruption" - Unsigned - Eurasia Review


". . .Khuong, who has been held since January, was convicted of giving bribes to police officers. He was arrested after writing two stories about police corruption for which he did some undercover reporting, posing as a traffic offender pretending to bribe a policeman. . ."

"When a Reporter Is An Uninvited Guest" - Margaret Sullivan - New York Times


 "...  I would see the case far differently if a Times reporter had been eavesdropping on a private citizens for a salacious story or had illegally broken into a private home. That would be unacceptable -- but it wasn't what happened."  "My conclusion: Given the buttoned-down, scrubbed-up way politicians present themselves, it's challenging for reporters to get under the surface. And it's important for citizens that they do.   "What Mr. Lipton [the reporter, Eric Lipton] did should not become an everyday practice. But -- seen in this wider context -- it's not nly pretty small stuff, but also reflects some journalistic initiative that serves Times readers well."    

"Tibet: A Losing Battle? (Part 2)" - Christopher Davis, Mark Thompson and David Boratav - France 24


"Journalism: To Sting or Not to Sting?" - Roy Greenslade - The Guardian

The line that editors walk between legitimate investigation and entrapment can sometimes be a fine one


". . .These are especially obvious when undercover reporting methods and elaborate subterfuge are used. Editors overseeing such investigations have to ask themselves several questions. The first one is the most crucial of all: is there enough prima facie evidence of wrongdoing by a person to warrant a sophisticated sting operation? . . ."

The Public Interest and the Ethics of Undercover Reporting" - Kathy English - Toronto Star


"Is It Ever OK for Journalists to Lie?" - Jack Shafer - Politico

What the latest Project Veritas flop can teach us about undercover media work.


   "Veritas had previously punk'd lefty activist groups and non-journalistic employees at NPR. But in its attempted sting of the Washington Post, Veritas went directly at the paper's reporters with a female operative selling a fictitious story that she had been impregnated by Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore as a teenager. The Post's reporters saw through her flimsy deceptions, counter-stinging her and Veritas with a bundle of fine reporting and thus proving the opposite of the organization's hypothesis: the Post had no overwhelming bias against Moore, and it exercised skepticism and thoroughness in reporting an allegation brought to its attention.   While outrageous, the depth of Veritas' undercover deception is not unprecedented, even in contemporary journalistic circles. In 2007, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover for Harper's magazine as a business executive who intended to hire lobbyists to skirt the law in helping him reform Turkmenistan's poor international image. In 1992, ABC News producers told Food Lion a passel of lies to secure jobs at the supermarket so they could film a story about the chain's substandard health practices. In 1963, Gloria Steinem submitted a fake name and Social Security number to get a job as a Playboy bunner for expose in Show magazine. . . .