Undercover Journalism: The History

From the 1800s up until today: daring reporters, whose work endures

In the United States, journalists have been going undercover for more than one and a half century. As early as the mid-1800s, American reporters have tricked their way into places they and the public weren’t supposed to see.

To name just one early example, there have been several Northern journalists that assumed fake identities to witness the selling and buying of human beings in slave markets of the antebellum South. Like many others that came after them, these undercover reporters have been cunning and deceitful – but always in the name of the public interest.

It’s somewhat surprising to learn of so long a tradition when you’re coming from Germany, a country where many of the most daring and influential pieces of undercover journalism are tied to just one guy.

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Günter Wallraff, the foremost German undercover journalist, in 2011. (Photo by Iñigo Royo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via flickr)

That one guy is called Günter Wallraff (pictured above). A kind of working class avenger, he’s been uncovering unlawful and unethical labor practices since 1963. He’s now 73 years old and still working the same beat. What is more, he’s still ready to break a few laws in order to expose the truth, telling Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in a recent interview:

I’ve been the subject of dozens of lawsuits and in essence always won. Doing so, I have considerably increased the leeway of journalism and of the freedom of speech.

If that doesn’t sound very modest, bear in mind that a) this is my own clumsy translation from the German and b) the guy talking was born before the end of World War II. When Günter Wallraff was growing up, the horrors of Nazi rule over much of central Europe were still very present. In fact, many German authorities had served in similiar capacities during the Nazi era.

Germany had lost it’s democracy once before, when Hitler and his cronies dismantled the Weimar Republic. Was the freedom of speech really to stay this time around? It wasn’t far fetched to find that a little doubtful in the early 1960s. Still, it took the guts (and maybe also the leftist conviction) of a guy like Wallraff to actually fight for a »robust mandate« of the press.

Today, things look a little different than in the 1960s. It generally doesn’t pay for politicians in Germany to attack the press and it rarely happens (though for the first time in post-War history, we now have a right-wing street movement and affiliated populist party that seem eager to do away with several hard-won civil liberties, including not only the right for asylum but quite possibly also the freedom of the press).

The fact that undercover reporting is still an exemption rather than the rule in German media today may be reflective of both professional ethics and of stylistic prefercences that tend towards the conservative.

To overgeneralize just a little, German print and online journalists tend to be skeptical of being excessively self-reflective (oh, that darned and dreaded word »I«), they seem to prefer a »cinematographic« or pseudo-omniscient style of narration in their longform writing, and there’s the widespread belief that you mustn’t sign up to any causes, not even good ones. Of course, if you believe that, undercover reporting is pretty much off the table.

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Gloria Steinem, who went undercover to work at a Playboy club, in 2011 (Photo: Marnie Joyce, CC BY 2.0, via flickr)

In any case, I believe that there’s much we can learn from the American tradition that includes quite a few amazing stories and characters.

Take Nellie Bly, a reporter, who went undercover to expose the abject conditions in a women’s psychiatric ward in the late 1800s. Imagine that: a reporter daring to pose as mentally ill in order to be placed in an asylum where she knew the abuse of patients was common. She must have had quite some trust in her bosses and their ability to eventually get her out again!

What is more, Nellie Bly’s story took place in a time when it was rather uncommon for women to be accepted into the media. Bly herself had been pushed to write about homes and gardens instead of municipal malpractice. Still, Bly is only one example of undercover journalists from the US who are virtually unknown in Germany (A few years ago, I wrote an article celebrating Blys work for Berlin based Missy Magazine. You’ll find it here).

Luckily, there’s a great way to immerse yourself in the history of American undercover reporting: New York University’s Undercover Journalism Database. Compiled by Professor Brooke Kroeger (who also wrote an inspiring book about Nellie Bly), the database contains reproductions of articles pulled from NYU library’s microfilm archives. The use of the database is free of charge and you won’t need a student’s ID to access it.

A year or so before the launch, Kroeger announced there’d be

nearly 200 years worth of great but forgotten high-impact undercover journalism committed in the public interest.

Brooke Kroeger has kept that promise and went even further, as she explains in the About section of the database:

Included are not only examples of the most outstanding work but also the most serious lapses. There are examples of controversies over the practice, such as those generated by hidden camera investigations, and of the scholarly, legal and journalistic debates that followed.

So, where to start? Well, I’m only beginning to plunge into the depths of the database myself, but here are three suggestions that make for great reading:

finger_pointing_2There’s a reproduction of the book version of Nellie Bly’s report of ten days in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York, originally published as two part series in the New York World in 1887. It’s daring! It’s dazzling! Sorry if I keep repeating myself … (download the PDF).

finger_pointing_2»Secrets of Nazi Army in U.S.A.« – What a stunning headline, even today! In the 1930s, reporters William Mueller and John C. Metcalfe secretly joined a group of Nazi symathizers in the US that were getting ready for war. With a tone deliciously reminiscient of the exploitation movies of later decades, it makes you wonder if Quentin Tarantino considered buying the film rights to this multi-part series of articles yet. Published in the Chicago Daily Times in 1937 (here’s the overview page).

finger_pointing_2In the early 1960s, Gloria Steinem (pictured above), went undercover to work in a Playboy Club. Back then, Playboy magazine had just opened their first night club featuring bunny-clad waitresses and customers that couldn’t always keep their hands to themselves. Steinem would eventually become a well-known feminist and publisher of Ms. magazine (not unlike Alice Schwarzer in Germany). Her report was published as a two part series in Show magazine in 1963 (download the first part, and here’s the second part).

Of course there’s much more than that. In the Undercover Journalism Database, you’ll find exposés of organized crime and hate groups as well as infiltrations of hospitals, colleges and religious groups – you name it.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find quite a bit of stuff there that will make you (and me) cringe. Obviously, the ethics of going undercover are tricky and the question of means and ends is not to be taken lightly. Not every undercover journalist has had the good fortune of being »in essence« always right, like Günter Wallraff claims to have been, and of having courts agree with them.

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Suki Kim, a journalist who lived in North Korea, posing as a teacher, in 2015. (Photo: Bret Hartman/TED, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr)

What’s amazing though is the thematic scope and stylistic diversity of American undercover reporting. Browsing through the database, I’ve been reminded of a book I’ve read a few months ago, journalist Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us (Kim is pictured above), a memoir of her time undercover as a teacher in a university for the sons North Korea’s elite.

Kim’s is a book that helps you to understand just how thoroughly different the individual’s sense of self and society is in the North Korean totalitarian dictatorship. Yet she manages to portray her students as human beings, not drones, longing for knowledge and kinship like the rest of us. I understand that I risk sounding truly corny here, but Suki Kim’s work is important, because it shows that change is possible.

Kim had to be there (and be there for months at a time) to convey this story. And yet her book does not really seek to expose something in the old school sense, it doesn’t try to pull away the curtain and to catch the bad guy with their pants down. Rather, it is an effort to understand. The style of Without You, There Is No Us is tender, calm and introspective, even somewhat brooding.

It goes to show you don’t need to be a bleeding heart social justice warrior to go undercover – and to produce something that serves the public interest.

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