Toronto Star

Ethics of undercover reporting

Some instances where truth can only be found using means of deception

- Kathy English Public Editor

Journalism’s history of undercover reporting is fraught with contradict­ion.

On one hand, some of the most celebrated reporting of the past century or so resulted from courageous reporters who went undercover to expose injustices and wrongdoing.

On the other hand is the fact that journalism’s core value is truth. How can lying to get a story be reconciled with that value?

Like so many ethical issues in journalism, this is not a black and white issue. Journalist­s’ first obligation is to seek truth and report it. But there are some circumstan­ces when truth can only be discovered by means of deception. In such cases, the overriding value is the public interest.

Did the ends justify the means of the Star’s Sara Mojtehedza­deh going undercover for a month at Fiera Foods, one of Toronto’s largest industrial bakeries, to expose working conditions for precarious workers who rely on temp agencies to find work? In my view, this was most certainly justified.

The Star’s journalist­ic-standards guide makes clear that undercover reporting is a tool of last resort, to be used following extensive considerat­ion at the newsroom’s highest level: “Undercover reporting, photograph­y and surveillan­ce video should be used rarely and a case must be made that the story to be uncovered is of high public interest,” the policy states.

In practice, approval for undercover reporting is given only when reporters and senior editors have determined that the story could not be obtained by other means. Here, editor Michael Cooke and managing editor Irene Gentle made the judgment call to allow Mojtehedza­deh to go undercover. They concluded there was indeed no other way to get this informatio­n, and most important, that this was a story of strong public interest.

Mojtehedza­deh had spent many months investigat­ing temp agencies, seeking informatio­n about injustices to some of our community’s most vulnerable workers. In reading through hundreds of Ministry of Labour reports and court documents on workers’ injuries, she found numerous references to heath and safety violations at Fiera Foods Company and Marmora Freezing Corporatio­n, one of its partner companies.

She also discovered three deaths had occurred at Fiera or in affiliated companies. The most recent happened last year when 23-year-old Amina Diaby, a refugee from Guinea on her first job in Canada, died when her hijab was pulled into a machine as she worked on an assembly line near the conveyer belt. Diaby was hired through a temp agency and had been working at Fiera Foods for two weeks.

“We looked at all of the informatio­n and concluded that my going undercover as a temp worker was the only way to get this story. We couldn’t just ask precarious temp workers to tell us what is happening inside the factory,” Mojtehedza­deh told me this week. “In past, I have had cases of temp workers who were fired for speaking up to the Star and I did not want to put anyone at risk of losing their job.

“All of the injury data and the deaths made it clear there was a strong public interest here in the health and safety of temp workers.”

Fiera Foods has also benefited from public funding, having received some $4.7 million in government loans and grants. In response to questions from the Star, the company said that health and safety is a “core principle.”

Following publicatio­n of the Star’s investigat­ion, Fiera Foods this week was fined $300,000 after pleading guilty to charges under the Occupation­al Health and Safety Act related to Diaby’s death. As well, the company told the Star it has hired auditors to examine its health and safety practices and temp agency contracts.

If you have not read this investigat­ion by Mojtehedza­deh and Brendan Kennedy, who came into the project to provide further reporting, I hope you do so. Like many readers, I was stunned at what was revealed about the work conditions for these vulnerable workers, both through the undercover reporting and the more “classic” means of obtaining informatio­n.

Arguably, undercover reporting is itself a classic reporting technique. In the 2012 book, Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception, author Brooke Kroeger argues that undercover work embodies a central discipline of good reporting: “the ability to extract significan­t informatio­n or to create indelible, real-time descriptio­ns of hard-to-penetrate institutio­ns or social situations that deserve the public’s attention.”

The New York University journalism professor has compiled an online public database on undercover reporting that provides many example of outstandin­g undercover reporting (including some past Toronto Star investigat­ions) and numerous thought-provoking articles about the ethics of journalist­ic deception.

Star editor Michael Cooke believes strongly that “undercover reporting has a long and noble history and is often courageous work that takes perseveran­ce.

“Look no further than Nellie Bly,” he said, referring to the legendary reporter who went undercover in New York as a patient in a psychiatri­c hospital in the late 1800s.

“Her sensationa­l account of the dreadful conditions and treatment of the patients got action, fast. So Bly made life better for the mentally ill,” Cooke said. “And that’s what it’s all about . . . trying to make life better.”

 ?? SARA MOJTEHEDZA­DEH/TORONTO STAR ?? Sara Mojtehedza­deh working at Fiera Foods to expose conditions for temp workers is a case where going undercover is justified, Kathy English writes.
SARA MOJTEHEDZA­DEH/TORONTO STAR Sara Mojtehedza­deh working at Fiera Foods to expose conditions for temp workers is a case where going undercover is justified, Kathy English writes.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada