Mother Jones magazine recently published a huge expose on life behind bars at a Louisiana for-profit prison. A reporter went undercover as a prison guard for four months and was disturbed by his findings of how a short-staffed prison cut corners for a buck and risked the health and lives of prisoners and guards alike. Maybe he should earn a Pulitzer for his reporting. Unfortunately, some media critics complain that the deception involved in such reporting negates the benefits of what the story may reveal. If authors followed this approach the public would never know much about anything.
A Washington Post critic wrote earlier this month that “Many mainstream news organizations don’t countenance undercover reporting in any form because they insist that reporters identify themselves as working journalists. The Washington Post is among these.”
If journalists and authors don’t go undercover or insert themselves into situations where lies need to be provided in order to extract a bigger truth, society loses and that’s not the playground I want to be on. To defeat lawbreakers we need a pro-active media, even if it means breaking a few rules.
But Washington Post critic Margaret Sullivan insists: “Being truthful is of it most importance. Misrepresentation, by its nature, works against reader trust. And it’s not fair to those being written about.”
But can’t readers make the distinction that a writer seeking to uncover injustice needs to take certain measures in order to get that story? It’s done daily. Reporters trade stories and favors the way cops bargain with low-level criminals in exchange for testimony on huge crimes. And when a writer goes undercover or pretends to be someone he’s not, in order to witness the truth that endangers others, so be it.
The police lie during an interrogation in hopes of tripping up the guilty, don’t they? Bosses at the office, in order to get more productivity out of personnel, lie all of the time. Politicians, in order to get legislation passed, don’t reveal all that they know that may support the position of the opposition. Parents lie to their kids to protect them from greater harm. Why would writers or journalists be any different? As long as they are truthful in what they write – and do all that they can to discern fact from fiction – and make a balanced attempt to understand all sides, what’s the harm?
The news is always about something someone doesn’t want us to know about. You won’t discover a secret merely by asking someone involved in a cover-up if they’d like to reveal anything. You must do some good sleuthing – research, analysis, tough interviews and go undercover. According to the Post’s story, the report on the prison tagged some significant wrongdoings at the Winn Correctional Facility in Winnfield, LA:
“One prisoner who had lost fingers to gangrene was denied medical care. Inmates attacked and stabbed other inmates. And the prison had no psychiatrist on staff to deal with 500 inmates. Brutal force seemed the answer to every situation that arose.”
We use spies overseas to protect us. We should use writer-spies here to protect us, too. The government can’t investigate and catch every wrongdoer-and sometimes it’s the government that needs to be watched. Our writers are what stands between freedom and anarchy.
Sullivan asks: “Can any form of misrepresentation (even if indirect) be justly employed to serve a larger truth?”
Uh, yes! Why is this an ethical dilemma? NYU has a database of thousands of successful examples of media undercover reporting over the past few decades. Remember ABC reporting about Food Lions unhealthy practices? Remember Nellie Bly exposing the abuse at a mental facility when she went undercover?
Of course, there needs to be guidelines and limitations to this kind of reporting. For instance, a line would have to be drawn if in the process of going undercover, you have to hurt someone or commit a significant crime, or you stand by while not trying to intervene in a life-death situation.
Good journalism’s goal is to bring out a truth with the purpose of making the world better. If undercover journalists go in and become part of the problem they are to report on, that would serve no one. Additionally, if they go in and find little news, don’t run the story anyway and then try to sensationalize minor infractions.
When our society becomes fair and balanced there will be less of a need for the media to report to aggressive tactics such as undercover reporting. But until the world is a utopia, readers should applaud the risks and skills employed by journalists and book authors in order to go undercover and reveal the stories that need to be told.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016
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