Lying to get the truth

by Shannon Fay
When is a reporter not a reporter? When they go undercover to get a story.

by Shannon Fay

It was summer 2007 and the province had just raised the price of the annual inspection for vehicles from $15.50 to $25. It also required that mechanics do more than before when checking cars, such as removing tires to check brakes. Jeffrey Simpson wanted to find out what exactly the extra $9.50 would get him. So he borrowed a 1997 Plymouth Breeze from a colleague and took it to five different Halifax auto shops.

At his first stop, the Petro-Canada on Quinpool Rd, the mechanics said that it would cost at least $738.72 to get the car in shape to pass the inspection. At another garage the price was $289.27. At another it would have cost $319.41. By the time Simpson had visited all five garages he had received estimates ranging anywhere from $30.21 to $973.32.

Simpson never mentioned to the mechanics that he was a reporter doing a story for The Chronicle Herald. The article was published on July 3rd, 2007, revealing the vast price discrepancies in Halifax garages.

Undercover reporting pieces like Simpson’s present a paradox to journalists. Some journalists say that sometimes going undercover is the only way to get the story. But even then, is misrepresenting yourself justified?

Jim Meek is the assistant director of new projects at the Herald and worked with Simpson on the article. He says that going undercover is not something reporters should do too often. “Most of the time…you are disclosing that you’re a reporter, who you’re working for and what you’re doing. In the case of a story like this where there’s consumer interest…I think there are circumstances, and this is one, in which the only way to get the story and it’s a great story to get.”

Simpson agrees. “A normal person gets one crack. They don’t get to shop around, that sort of thing. So it’s all kind of luck of the draw. It really is the MVI lottery. It’s the difference between paying thirty bucks for the inspection and paying a thousand bucks for the inspection and repairs.”

Simpson says that a year later he still has people complimenting him on the article. But not everyone was happy with it. Michael Kennedy, manager of the Petro-Can that Simpson visited, says that the story was “underhanded.”

“All this proves is that different places will give you different prices. It didn’t prove anybody right, it didn’t prove anybody wrong.”

Fred MacNeil is the president of the Steele Auto Group. Mechanics at the Steele Chrysler on Robie Street said the car needed new brake lines and rear tires, adding up to a $973.32 bill. MacNeil says what he finds most disappointing about the story is that no one examined the car afterwards.

“The sad part about it is that we had no way to refute that. We asked to have the car brought in and independently examined, and a whole bunch of things…If we feel there’s something wrong with the car, and other people are saying there’s not, we’d like to find the one way to prove it. That’s to get the car checked, and that opportunity was taken away.”

Canadian Tire was the only garage to pass the car and charged only $30.21 for the inspection sticker. They were contacted for this article but would not comment.

Simpson defended his methods saying “I just went in like anybody else, presented the car and said it needed the safety inspection, paid my money, and then they gave me the written report or receipt.”

Meek points out that the article gave all of the garages “more than a full and fair chance to explain the differences.”

Cheap thrill or valuable tool?

Nick Russell has a PhD in journalism ethics and is author of the book ‘Morals and the Media.’ He says that when it comes to undercover reporting “sometimes you have to do what looks like unethical things to achieve ethical objects.”

Russell points out that aside from the ethical dilemmas of going undercover, reporters also risk losing their readers’ trust. Russell holds up the Food Lion case as a great victory and defeat for undercover journalism. In 1992 Food Lion, a popular American supermarket chain, was the subject of an undercover operation by ABC news.

ABC reporters put on wigs to conceal their cameras and got jobs behind the scenes at the supermarket giant. Aside from seeing food mishandled, they observed spoiled goods being sold to customers and a rat infestation.

“They did a terrific series on disgusting conditions. They had film of people dropping meat on the floor and picking it up and wrapping it and selling it and that kind of thing. It was a real revelation.”

After the show aired on November 5, 1992, Food Lion launched a lawsuit against ABC. The company wasn’t contending what the reporters had found. They weren’t denying the rats, or the claims of unpaid overtime, or selling rotten goods. They were suing because the reporters had misrepresented themselves to get jobs at the company.

Food Lion won.

“They were able to bring in, among other witnesses, patrons, customers of the Food Lion company who were most offended that anybody had done this to their favorite food company. They didn’t seem to care about the quality of the food, but they were offended by the idea of going undercover,” Russell says.

It’s not just viewers who take offence. Even in the journalism community undercover reporting is controversial. In her September 15th column in The Toronto Star, Rosie DiManno calls going undercover “shortcut journalism and intrinsically dishonest.” In the column, titled ‘Journalism or cheap parlour trick?’ DiManno writes “going ‘undercover’ to tell a story is just about the laziest form of reporting existent.”

“Generally speaking, I think it’s just a tawdry way of doing journalism. You know what it is? Its cheap thrills,” DiManno says. DiManno herself has gone undercover in the past, posing as everything from a high school student to a prostitute.

But it’s been a long time since DiManno has gone undercover. “What finally dawned is that, by so posing, I was really a poseur as reporter,” DiManno writes in her column.

“I acknowledge that there are times when perhaps you can’t attain the information you’re looking for, that the story doesn’t exist unless you put yourself inside,” DiManno says. When asked what kind of criteria should be used to judge when going undercover is required, DiManno says “Fortunately, that’s a management decision.”

Like DiManno Rob Cribb also writes for the Toronto Star, but unlike her he champions undercover reporting. He has gone undercover to get stories on issues such as unsanitary slaughter houses and massive illegal telemarketing operations.

The telemarketing scams were, and still are a major problem, in Toronto. As far back as 1996, the U.S. Congress labeled Toronto as the home base for many telephone scams. In 2002, the Ontario provincial police estimated that there were anywhere from 300 to 500 of these operations in Toronto, scamming Americans out of millions of dollars each year. Cribb had heard of these ‘boiler rooms’, but wanted to see for himself how they worked.

Cribb says he has criteria for doing undercover stories like this: it has to be a story of great public interest and the paper must be able to later reveal its methods. In the case of the telemarketing story, Cribb says “we showed pretty clearly that the only way to figure out what goes on inside these boiler rooms- which is a multi-million dollar illegal industry operating right under our noses- you got to go in. You got to see it, you got to witness it. There are just some stories where you just got to see it in order to gather evidence. There’s just no other way.”

The boiler rooms had been covered before in news articles, not only at The Toronto Star but other papers as well. Police on both sides of the border had investigated and laid charges against many telemarketers, including laying charges in October 2002 against four ‘directors’ of a boiler room. Whistleblowers had come forward and there was no shortage of victims. With all the information already out there, was going undercover really necessary?

“None of those stories told what was going on. It was impossible to know. All they did was say ‘So-and-so was charged.’ They’re one-off stories. They didn’t give any sense of the scope of the problem. They didn’t explain that this massive billion dollar industry was operating on a huge scale across the city. They didn’t show how they were able to rip off millions of people.”

Russell agrees. “The undercover story adds a dimension of reality. Without it you don’t know what these people talk like at work, the kind of posters they have on the walls, the things they are instructed to say.”

A matter of time and money

Russell says that both the garage story and the telemarketing story are the type of journalism he would like to see more of, but fears that newsrooms are shifting away from undercover work.

“Budgets are so tight that news media managers are not prepared to allow the time and expense for doing this sort of journalism.” For example, the final amount that ABC was forced to pay Food Lion was a token sum of $2, but it took years of costly legal battles to get to that point.

Simpson also acknowledges that investigative stories like his can end up costing the paper.

“This is kind of a long story. It took a long time to do, took a lot of resources. I mean, in a lot of Canadian news rooms today, they’re not spending money, they’re not taking the time. Budgets are tight, that sort of thing.”

Undercover reporting can also cost the paper in less obvious ways. Paul Jacquart, retail sales manager for The Chronicle Herald, confirms that “one of the local dealerships did reduce their advertising considerably with us. The Steele group was absent from our newspaper for awhile.” He also says that they have since started buying ad space again. “If you opened up our newspaper, you would certainly find them within our newspaper. They are very active,” he says.

Fred MacNeil says it was the garage’s decision to withdraw advertising. “All of our dealerships are run independently. Steele Chrysler did pull their advertising for a fair amount of time.”

What it comes down to

When deciding whether to go undercover or not, Meek, Russell and Cribb all offer a variation on the same theme: “Is there any other way to get the story?”

“It’s a very specific tool for a very specific circumstance,” Cribb says.

More than a year after writing the garage piece, Simpson is still proud of it.

“It was an interesting story because instead of taking the government’s word for it, it highlighted some deficiencies in the system.”

Over the summer Simpson received mail from some of the auto shops he had visited the summer before. They were leaflets reminding him that it had been a year since his last visit and he should bring the car in for another check-up.

Sidebar: Newspaper Ethics codes

Most newspapers have a written code of ethics. These codes deal with issues such as sources, plagiarism, and conflict of interest. Ironically however, even though these codes dwell on the importance of transparency and openness, often these codes are not available to the public.

New York Times

The ethics code for the New York Times can be found online at http://www.nytco.com/press/ethics.html#A2. It does not talk about undercover reporting directly, but does speak about some of the methods used when undercover such as hidden recording devices.

The Chronicle Herald

The Chronicle Herald does not release its ethics code to the public, but they will answer questions about it. According to Jim Meek, one of the standards the Herald code has for undercover investigations is the ‘Fairness Test,’ in that the reporter must go back to the people being investigated and give them a chance to respond.

The Globe and Mail

In an e-mail reply to a request for a copy of the paper’s ethics code, deputy editor Slyvia Stead wrote “I’m sorry we do not make our ethics code public.” She did not reply to an e-mail asking if she could say what the code says in regards to undercover reporting.

-The National Post

The National Post did not respond to calls or e-mails at time of press.