Brooke Kroeger has been doing some digging lately.
For the past three years, she's been sorting through what must be miles of microfilm in an effort to collect every significant example of undercover reporting from the past two centuries or so, pulling any project that won a prize, sat on a bestseller list or sparked a government hearing.
"What every editor will say, and what I believe is true, is that undercover reporting should be a journalism of last resort. "
She started the research for her forthcoming book Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception from Northwestern University Press, but says she's managed to amass more material than could possibly fit between the slim volume's two covers. Now she's working with New York Universitywhere she is the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Instituteto build an online database of all this undercover reporting dirt. (Editor's note: At NYU, Kroeger taught both the writer and editor of this piece.)
Undercover reporting, she says, is a subset of immersion journalism that employs "deception with good purpose." In the following interview, Kroeger tells Gelf how the practice has changed (and stayed the same) over the decades, why it still merits our attention, and why the best undercover stories are just the "icing on the cake."
Gelf Magazine: What's the drive for this database project? Can I find most of this reporting work myself online now?
Gelf Magazine: Is this database going be closed off from people not affiliated with NYU? And isn't this going to take forever?
I'll probably do this till I die, and I hope it'll be something that people can use. I think it'll be a celebration of a practice that is often overlooked.
Gelf Magazine: You've been poring over nearly 200 years of undercover reporting. When does it work best?
One thing people talk about in doing the journalism that matters is that you have to make the significant interesting. And this really does that. So you can take something you really care about as a reporter and write about it ten times in a straightforward way, and it's really boring. And then you can write about it as an undercover reporter and suddenly it's on the table and people are talking about it.
The other thing is that it's used sparingly to best effect, mostly to protect the impact. Because the impact is the "aha!", the theater of it, and if you do it over and over again it loses that impact.
Gelf Magazine: Are there certain kinds of stories that lend themselves undercover work?
Things repeat through localities, too. One very popular topic in the 1980s was real estate discrimination. So all over the country in different localities, a black and a white reporter would go out and find out if this was happening in their town. And that was repeated dozens of times to great effect.
Gelf Magazine: When is undercover reporting a big no-no?
What every editor will say, and what I believe is true, is that it should be a journalism of last resort. There should not be other ways that are possible to get the material.
After you've moved through those barriers, the more creative the project, the greater the impact both positive and negative. The more it addresses a social or human or public need that people grasp viscerally, the better the project.
Gelf Magazine: Have you come across any truly groan-worthy investigations?
Gelf Magazine: What does undercover reporting uniquely offer?
Gelf Magazine: Are there ethical dangers to making one's story so completely subjective?
William Gaines talked about it as the icing on the cake, a really narrative element. He won a Pulitzer Prize for doing hospital reporting while posing as a janitor. That was only one piece of a very large investigation in Chicago that shut the hospital down in four weeks. So going undercover was just the icing on the cake of a thoroughly investigated series. However, when anyone talks about this significant episode, they talk about him pretending to be a janitor.
We're drawn to narrative, we're drawn to stories, rather than statistical information or information from some disgruntled janitors that may or may not be true.
It requires a high level of skill. With going in and doing it this way, you sort of have to check yourself at the door, and I think the best narratives do that. Some people do use it as a backdrop to tell just their own personal experiences, which is okay, but as journalism is not the best way.
Gelf Magazine: But this work can get a little sticky ethics-wise, right? What are the gray areas?
There is a large camp that says if I'm going into a hospital and I don't tell them why I'm there and I hide my camera and notebook and I scoop myself to one spot whenever an authority walks by, that's okay. I think doing that is fine, but to try to make it something different than undercover reporting is kind of kooky. You've gone to enormous lengths to try not to reveal yourself, so why not call it what it is? But that's debatable.
You have to be comfortable with the fact that this is something that journalists do. It's kind of icky, but it does the job. And the results can be pretty remarkable.
Gelf Magazine: Obviously, the media industry has changed dramatically in the past few years with the explosion of new media and a massive budgetary squeeze. Does immersion journalism have a future in that new environment? How does it fit? Can we afford it, and is it even necessary?
Still, when these things are done well, they're often expensive and time-consuming.
The point is to get attention. It's complicated. I'm a proponent, under the right circumstances, under the law and for good reason. It's an interesting form of journalism that, when used selectively, has a place and should continue to have a place.