Saturday, February 10, 2007

When journalists go undercover (Sept 2004)

You wouldn’t expect an article about the convention business to spark a frenzy in local media.

Yet that is what happened when the August issue of Atlantic Business went into circulation. It contained an article about the convention trade in Atlantic Canada, with some findings about which cities were better equipped to pursue and host convention business.

Of the nine cities surveyed, Corner Brook ranked the lowest in a number of criteria, which generated some controversy.

But what really stirred things up was the way in which Atlantic Business generated its information. Through an email message, editor Dawn Chafe posed as a convention planner for Animal Aid, a fictitious group, and asked the various cities to make their pitch. The staff at these offices had no idea that this was a journalistic enterprise.

Some cities handled it very well, while a few – most notably Corner Brook – let their guard down and did not follow up on the request for information. No doubt the result would have been different if the city had known they were dealing with a journalist.

And that, said Dawn Chafe in an interview, is precisely the point of the exercise. “If I had said ‘Hi, I’m a reporter doing an article on the conventions market’ I would have come back with something less than the truth and more a packaged, public relations-approved response, as opposed to finding out exactly what they do,” she said.


The Atlantic Business article received coverage in The Western Star and The Telegram as well as on CBC radio and television. Interestingly, CBC’s policy is that all reporters must clearly identify themselves before any interview.

“We have a policy that’s pretty strict on this,” said Paul Hambleton, Managing Editor for News and Current Affairs with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. “When we’re doing our job we have to be up front with what we’re doing, and that’s a public right. Deception must not be used to get information. That’s our guiding principle.”

There are exceptions to this rule, Hambleton explained, but these would be pretty exceptional circumstances, usually involving a serious legal matter. “The guiding principle is, is there is an overriding public interest at stake that we feel, as a journalistic operation, we should find out more about this? This has happened in investigative circumstances. Certainly ‘the fifth estate’ has used hidden cameras to investigate (certain stories). And you need the highest level of approval to go forward on these things.”

However, Dawn Chafe sees nothing unethical about going under cover for her research. “I don't believe my story or methods were unethical, but I can also appreciate the other point of view,” she said.

“I wasn’t trying to trap them into doing something. I was only asking then to do what they normally would do – what they’re supposed to do – and then analyze (the results). So I didn’t think it was unethical and I’m kind of surprised to hear that because certainly no one hinted at that to me, and it’s something I’ve seen done many times.”

In this case, Chafe says that an “objective, documented, gathering of facts” offers greater insight and truth. “It's also interesting that another media organization which might balk at such methods itself has no problem with reporting on the results.”

Chafe said her review was based on responses given in the context of what is, for the subjects, their “public persona”.

“As public representatives of their respective organizations, they are regularly asked to respond to the types of questions I posed in my email. In that sense, they should always be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that knock on their doors.”

Chafe said she placed follow-up calls to those subjects who did not respond immediately, giving them a second chance to deliver the goods. “And in publishing the article, I didn’t hide anything. I published copies of the letter and thoroughly explained the process I used.”

Chafe said this is the first time she has gone under cover for an article in her magazine. “Is this something I would do all the time? Probably not. I just thought that this type of article was the best way to get what I consider to be the truth. My reaction is that it worked.”


I worked at The Sunday Express from 1988 to 1991, and though the paper was perceived by some as a muck-raking scandal sheet, it’s policy was similar to that of the CBC. We always had to identify ourselves clearly as journalists, and were never allowed to pose as someone else.

There was some internal debate about this, since we knew we could get some really juicy stuff by going under cover. But the underpinning rationale was fairly simple. If journalists are going to lie for the sake of a story, why should we expect our interview subjects to tell us the truth?

There was one exception to this policy. In order to be treated like any other diner and avoid getting preferential treatment, our restaurant critic was expected to make reservations under a companion’s name or a pseudonym.

If the restaurant owner knew a reviewer was on the premises, that person would get perfectly prepared food, gargantuan portions and the finest service… and readers would not get an objective review.

Clearly, there are no easy answers to this ethical dilemma.

Karl Wells of CBC Canada Now has recently started writing a freelance dining out column for The Telegram. This presents a dilemma for Wells, who has one of the most recognizable faces in the province. How can he expect to receive non-preferential treatment? I put this question to Wells via email.

“Anonymity is ideal, in my view,” he replied. “However, because of my profile, I knew this was not something I could do anything about. I do the best I can to make sure a restaurant is not prepared for me. If I need a reservation I get someone to make it for me in another name. Quite often I will just walk in without a reservation, and I usually order straight from the regular menu… I also try to be as low-key and inconspicuous as possible.”

Wells said he has never been convinced that his celebrity results in special treatment at restaurants, and has seen his share of bad food and service. That may be the case. However, I caution him that this will change as word of his new column spreads. Some restaurant owners will tape Wells’ photo to the wall inside the kitchen door, hoping that staff will recognize him in time to avoid a bad review and even kindle a good one.

Long-time viewers of CBC TV will recall that Karl Wells is a master of disguise, a skill he demonstrated every Halloween. I asked (only half-jokingly) if he has considered using this technique.

“I briefly considered disguises, but quickly abandoned the idea after recalling numerous occasions when people would recognize me while wearing all manner of caps, hats, scarves, and glasses. I remember being shocked when, despite my different appearance, people would shout, ‘Hey Karl! How's it going?’”

Wells stressed that he pays for his own meals and is not subsidized in any way by a meal allowance.

“It is very important to me that I maintain credibility with the people who follow the column. I want to avoid the slippery slope of taking favours from restaurateurs. When people read the column to find a nice place to eat, I want them to know they can trust what I'm saying.”

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