The challenge with undercover reporting in a corrupt environment
Text by Tamara Bralo
Undercover reporting rests on a paradox: it relies on deception to uncover the truth. Because of it, it needs to meet a set of preconditions before we engage in it: it requires exhausting all other alternatives first, and we need to be reasonably sure that any possible transgressions on our part can be justified as being in public interest. It is an ethical minefield under the best of circumstances.
There are many instances of undercover journalism done right. One of the most celebrated dates back to the 19th century: Nellie Bly, a journalist for New York World, decided to investigate the abuse and neglect at the Women’s Insane Asylum – as a patient. In order to investigate accusations that the asylum not only mistreated patients but also admitted those who were not sick to begin with; Nellie Bly feigned insanity, got herself committed and documented the (mis)treatment of patients. Her series of reports in 1887 prompted a government inquiry and subsequent intervention. Few would argue that the story could have been done as convincingly and as effectively any other way, or that it was not of vital public interest.
However, not many instances of undercover reporting are as ethically unambiguous as Nellie Bly’s report. Covering corruption, or illicit trade, by definition has far more gray areas. Even among the experts and practitioners, there is little agreement on where the lines are or even the of validity of the approach. Undercover work is as often accused of flirting with sensationalism as it is praised as one of the most difficult and courageous forms of journalism.
Deciding whether or not we engage in undercover journalism sometimes also depends on a bigger societal structure. In a society where corruption is an exception rather than the norm, exposing illegal practices comes with built-in shock value. Those illegal practices are the story, the telling of it is secondary. The use of undercover journalism is in this case as exceptional as the stories it covers.
Yet, the same cannot be said for societies where corruption is rampant. The bar for going undercover is – or should be – higher, it is more difficult to justify deceit when arguing for the need for transparency. If corruption is commonplace, it is also less hidden from the public eye – the public fails to be shocked, or even convinced of any wrongdoing. Undercover reporting under those circumstances runs a risk of normalizing deceit, even blurring the line between exposing corrupt practices and advocating them. It becomes, at best, entertainment and at worst, a how-to, a step-by-step guide for corruption.
Using undercover techniques can diminish the already fragile public trust. In societies where corruption is the norm rather than exception, how the story is told should carry equal weight as the story itself. Otherwise, rather than advocating transparency, we may find ourselves unwittingly encouraging the opposite.