What Happened to Undercover Journalism?

By Staff
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Harper’s editor Ken Silverstein went undercover last winter to reveal the inner workings of Washington, D.C. lobbying firms. Neither his subterfuge nor his findings–firms “proposed laundering money” and “bragged that they had ‘strong personal relationships’ at every major level of government”–were particularly surprising. But the journalism community’s condemnation of Silverstein’s method prompted Aaron Swartz, writing for Extra! (article not available online), to investigate why undercover journalism is suddenly so unpopular.

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.

But stories like Ehrenreich’s are harder and harder to come by. One reason is their cost in court: A string of litigation against undercover reporters in the 1990s forced media outlets to pay millions to private companies. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Silverstein blames lazy reporters for the dearth of undercover stories, especially “the smug, high-end Washington press corps” who have “become part of the very power structure that they’re supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.”

Where does new media fit into all this? It’s nice to imagine bloggers as the rogues who will dig anew into investigative journalism. Assuming the public trusted bloggers to deliver the real story (still, admittedly, a shaky assumption), how would bloggers protect themselves from the retaliation of powerful people and companies?

Lisa Gulya

Image by striatica, licensed under Creative Commons.

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