Where is the balance in undercover reporting?

There’s a great new article in the Ryerson Review of Journalism (one of Canada’s best magazines, imho) about the ethics of going undercover as a reporter.

The article focuses on Jan Wong, a Globe and Main columnist known for stories that reveal the private lives of celebrities and ordinary citizens. Some time, more than they want.

But this time, did she go too far?

wong-storyWong (using her real name, for the record) joined a maid service and spent a month working as a maid in the homes of Canadians. [One of the stories, called “Coming Clean,” is here.] Although no family was identified by name, one of them said their neighbourhood, size of clothing, family makeup and other details that made their friends and others recognize them. That family is now suing Wong, the Globe’s parent company, and the cleaning service for invasion of privacy and deceit.

The RRJ has an interesting timeline of investigative journalism:

  • Nellie Bly entered an infamous New York insane asylum in the 1880s by pretending to be mentally ill, and wrote about the abuses patients suffered.
  • George Orwell wrote detailed accounts of living in poverty in Paris and London in the late 1920s.
  • In the ’70s and ’80s, Pam Zekman and other Chicago-based journalists went undercover in nursing homes and abortion clinics.
  • In 1979, the Pulitzer Board denied Zekman and another reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times an award for their daring series on corruption in the city, reproaching their deceptive tactics—opening their own tavern, the Mirage, and documenting visits by city officials who solicited bribes.

The CBC has a very strict standard for this kind of thing. From our Journalistic Standards and Practices book:

The policy on clandestine methods states the general rule that journalism should be conducted in the open. There may be occasions when the use of devices such as hidden cameras or microphones does not infringe the law and when such use could be regarded as being in the public interest. In such cases, once the Law Department has determined that the recording would be legal, prior authorization must be obtained from the senior officer in information programming. Authorization may be given only if the information gained serves an important purpose, is indispensable to that purpose and cannot be obtained by more open means. Moreover, it must concern illegal, anti-social or fraudulent activities or clear and significant abuses of public trust.

I ran into this policy more than once, working as DNTO‘s western producer. Working on consumer-rights stories, I’d asked permission to record wearing a hidden microphone. I had to make my pitch to the head of news and each time I was turned down because the stories weren’t deemed to illustrate significant enough public trust.

Of course, I was pissed off, but in retrospect, the CBC made the right call. After all, I worked in A&E (arts and entertainment), not news.

(Side note: With the help of six freelancers, I produced a documentary called “24 Hours at Hamburger Mary’s” — finding the stories of people who visit the Vancouver diner. The network killed the piece because I failed to tell the freelancers to get people’s last names. I still am bugged by that one.)

Have a read of the RRJ article then let me know — was what Wong did wrong?