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New Database Tracks History of Undercover Reporting

From tales of tainted meat to racism to mistreatment of wounded soldiers, some of the stories that have rankled the establishment and raised public consciousness and concerns haven’t come from straight news, on-the-record reporting. They’ve come from journalists who’ve gone undercover. Or as a new NYU database of undercover reporting dubs it, reporters who’ve engaged in “deception for journalism’s sake.”

The database at undercoverreporting.org launched this week and chronicles undercover journalism from the 1800s to present day, with stories grouped by series and topic. The database — a collaboration between NYU journalism professor Brooke Kroeger and the university’s libraries — lets users search by the writer, the publication, the topic or the type of method employed in the undercover work. Each entry includes not only references and when available links to the source material, but also a bit of the history on the impact of the work.

The database covers a wide scope of story types and topics allowing visitors to drink deep or skim everything from working other people’s jobs to living as another race to faking life as a patient in hospitals or asylums. It even includes a cluster of stories and critic’s reaction about undercover reporting itself.

“Much of this material has long been buried in microfilm in individual libraries and thus very difficult to retrieve,” Kroeger said in a press release announcing the database. “Most digitized newspaper archives do not go back past the 1980s or 1990s and even for those that do, it’s difficult to search without exact details of the piece you are seeking.” Kroger, who directed the project, wrote a book out this month based on the research she conducted, “Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception,” in which she argues the often looked down upon practice has played a valuable role in journalism for the public good.

There are several ways to browse the database. To be honest, it is a little clunky, but you can find stories happenstance with the curated collection of clusters on topics on the front page or the latest entries on the side of the page and the archives. You also can search for terms, individuals or topics you’re interested in. The one thing I’d like to see added but couldn’t quite put together or find would be a timeline of stories. I’d like to see an evolution of how, say, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (a work of fiction but based on real conditions) led to more recent tainted food exposés. Also, what periods of history saw a burst or resurgence of undercover work? It’s hard to tell in a linear fashion from this collection. I haven’t read the book (yet), so maybe it’s easier to string together there.

Nevertheless, as a student of both journalism and sociology, my favorite books involve reading the stories of people who’ve actually infiltrated or lived the life they write about. This database is a gold mine of those types of stories, several of which I’ve read (and are worth re-reading) and even more I’d never heard about but would like to read now. Definitely bookmark worthy.

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