Sometimes, getting the scoop on a story means doing more than simple research and interviews. Sometimes it requires a bigger and riskier sacrifice, like going undercover. Although the ethics and credibility of undercover tactics have been called into question, in some cases, the only way to unearth the truth is to go incognito.
Fabricated identities, hidden cameras, and gruesome and terrifying revelations are just a few of the aspects involved in this insider method of getting the story. And it’s hard not to admire these gutsy journalists’ passion and dedication to their careers, as they infiltrate everything from psychiatric hospitals and federal penitentiaries to jihadist terrorist groups and soccer hooligan gangs. This is definitely a career path for those seeking thrills, excitement, and danger.
10. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane
Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, also known by her pen name Nellie Bly, was one of the first female reporters in the US. However, when she was pressed into writing about what were deemed appropriate topics for women reporters, such as gardening and fashion, Cochrane moved from Pittsburgh to New York in 1887. There, an editor at the New York World dubiously offered her an undercover assignment that required both courage and daring. Cochrane was to act insane, get committed to a lunatic asylum, and report on the conditions inside.
Few women of the day would have dreamed of doing such a thing, but Cochrane did, despite her editor’s admission that he didn’t know exactly how he would get her out again. Cochrane feigned madness and amnesia, and she was soon admitted to the Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum. She spent 10 days enduring abusive mistreatment from nurses, disgusting rat-infected conditions, dirty drinking water, and spoiled food. Released upon request of The World, Cochrane wrote an exposé about her experiences that led to more thorough examinations in insanity cases and an $850,000 increase in budget for the Department of Charities and Collections.
9. Chris Terrill
Chris Terrill is a British anthropologist and documentary filmmaker who has covered everything from school bullying to the British Royal Navy tracking cocaine smugglers in the Caribbean. Terrill has developed his own “lone-wolf” style, in which he fulfills all the roles of production – from filming and directing to presenting.
In 1992, Terrill disguised himself as a wildlife smuggler in order to investigate the major gangs involved in the illegal orangutan trade. He has also gone undercover posing as a trader of women to expose human trafficking gangs operating in Denmark, Belgium, and the Dominican Republic. The work of infiltrating and exposing the activities of such groups makes Terrill’s career choice seem a noble and courageous calling.
8. Peter Warren
Born in London, Peter Warren has worked as a journalist and private investigator in Canada for over 50 years. He was a talk-show host for 35 of those years and has taken a special interest in cold cases and wrongful convictions. His undercover work has ranged from spending four days locked up as a patient in a psychiatric ward, to pretending to be a would-be investor.
His most gutsy stint, however, may well have been spending an entire week as a convict in Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. Warren wanted to bring more attention to the case of David Milgaard, a man wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a nursing assistant named Gail Miller. Warren interviewed Milgaard many times about his plight. Finally, in 1997, Milgaard’s innocence was proven and he was released. He’d already spent 23 years in prison.
7. Anas Aremeyaw Anas
Ghanaian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas – who does not show his face in public and uses his anonymity to his advantage – has gone undercover dozens of times in his native city of Accra. From the beginning, Anas, who started out with a clear career path as a student reporter, wanted to begin exposing corruption. And he was soon in charge of investigative journalism at Ghanaian newspaper The Crusading Guide, which he now co-owns as The New Crusading Guide. Way to climb the career ladder.
Anas has posed as a janitor in a brothel to expose child prostitution, pretended to be an assembly-line worker at a cookie factory (where maggot-infested flour was being used), and even checked into a psychiatric ward as a patient. While there, he caught one of the orderlies selling drugs (and recorded himself buying them), saw unfed patients eating from dumpsters, and documented how a corpse was left for days in a ditch until it was taken away in a van used to transport food.
Anas’s goal is to make sure his government does something about corruption and crimes by providing it with evidence.
6. John Howard Griffin
In 1959, white novelist John Howard Griffin began taking the drug Oxsoralen, which, in combination with sunlamp exposure, turned his skin black. No other alteration to his appearance was necessary, apart from shaving his head. He had become, to all eyes, a black man. Essentially, he had changed race for his career.
Griffin traveled through the Deep South of the United States with the aim of discovering what it was like to be black. A Texan by birth, he had been taught by society that black people were different and inferior. A variety of experiences – ranging from smuggling Jews to safety with the French Resistance, to suffering from years of blindness after being struck by shrapnel in WWII – had a profound effect on him. What’s more, Griffin began to question whether racism was merely a “Southern problem,” or if it was, as he had come to believe, a “human problem.”
For a month, Griffin got a close-up look at how black people were treated. He called it “a dirty bath” of hatred. His book, Black Like Me, documented his journey and saw him receive death threats from some of his fellow white men. He was even hanged in effigy.
5. Stuart Goldman
Stuart Goldman is an American reporter who became known as “the journalistic hitman” for an acid-tongued column he wrote for the Los Angeles Times. His undercover work includes investigating TV evangelist Terry Cole-Whittaker and even infiltrating a UFO cult.
In the ‘90s, Goldman went undercover to expose tabloid media, both print and television, as a criminal organization. For three years, he used the alias Will Runyon and gathered information as a “mole.” At the end of his investigation, he claimed that the tabloids had an extensive spy-network, including doctors and bodyguards, who would report on celebrity movements. Reporters would sift through celebrity trash looking for “prescriptions, early pregnancy tests, [and] letters.”
The tabloids, Goldman reported, even hired private investigators to find unlisted phone numbers. They would call the number, pretending to be someone else, and glean information that way. In 1998, he published his findings in a book, titled Snitch: Confessions of a Tabloid Spy. There must be plenty of people in Goldman’s profession who don’t like him very much. That sort of dedication to your work takes guts.
4. Donal MacIntyre
Commenting on his 20-year career, Irish investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre says, “I’ve been shot at, beaten, abused on the streets in front of my children and forced to move house more than 50 times because of death threats.”
During his career, MacIntyre has gone incognito repeatedly and in various different situations. He has assumed roles in environments ranging from the adventure sports industry to care homes for vulnerable people – where he exposed conditions that led to one institution closing and two individuals being cautioned for assault.
However, one of MacIntyre’s best-known and bravest undercover exploits happened in 1999, when he posed as a prospective member of the Chelsea Headhunters, a notorious gang of football hooligans. During his time undercover, MacIntyre confirmed that the Headhunters had ties to the neo-Nazi organization Combat 18. Several gang members were arrested and convicted as a result of the investigation, and one member, Jason Marriner, was handed a six-year jail sentence for organizing a clash with rival fans. MacIntyre was placed under police protection during the trial.
3. Günter Wallraff
German writer Günter Wallraff is a master of disguise. Using assumed identities to disarm his targets, he has, through his work, provided a unique form of social commentary – from the inside. In 1969, Wallraff began his undercover career with 13 Undesired Reports, which chronicle his experiences posing as an alcoholic, a vagabond, and a chemical factory worker.
Later, in 1974, he headed to Greece, then under control of the Ioannides military dictatorship, for perhaps his most dangerous exploit. Wallraff protested in Athens’s Syntagma Square, chaining himself to a post to protest human rights violations. And, because he intentionally didn’t carry any form of ID, he was arrested, beaten and tortured. Even when his identity was disclosed, Wallraff was imprisoned – and only released later that year when the dictatorship collapsed.
Incredibly, in 2007, aged 64, Wallraff went undercover in a German call center. And in 2009, like John Howard Griffin before him (see entry 6), he posed as a black man to expose racial prejudice, a move that drew controversy.
In Wallraff’s honor, Swedish dictionary Svenska Akademiens Ordlista has included the word ‘walraffa,’ which means, “to expose misconduct from the inside by assuming a role.”
2. Tim Lopes
Brazilian journalist Tim Lopes grew up in a Rio de Janeiro favela (slum), and it was most likely this background that furnished him with his “old-school” technique of working the streets for stories. Lopes proceeded to go undercover in the favelas to film illegal activities with a hidden camera. These were dangerous and often neglected areas where the city government had no control. Instead, criminal gangs and drug lords ruled.
In 2001, Lopes helped collect undercover footage showing drug dealers and traffickers openly patrolling the streets with AK-47s. The report resulted in the police taking action and, ultimately, a decrease in revenue for the drug lords. Lopes gained a reputation for this kind of work, and on June 2, 2002, drug traffickers kidnapped him. Lopes was beaten, brutally tortured, set on fire, and murdered. In the end, he gave his life for his career.
1. Antonio Salas
Antonio Salas, an investigative journalist known only by his pseudonym, has made undercover work a way of life. In his own words, he has lived for “a year as a Nazi skinhead, a year and half as a dealer of women, [and] six years as an international terrorist.” Yet while this dangerous career has required incredible bravery and sacrifice, it has also scarred the man. Salas says that the terrible things he has seen undercover give him nightmares.
Showing his dedication, to prepare for his infiltration of a jihadist terror group, Salas fabricated an elaborate cover story, handwrote a personal copy of the Quran, and even got circumcised when he was invited to a bathhouse.
Incredibly, Salas also worked closely with infamous Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, running a website for him. Salas dedicates himself to his work in order to tell the public what’s really happening. And one encouraging result has been the letters he’s received from people who have seen the error of their ways and chosen to change.
“From a very early age I thought that doctor or teacher are the two best professions you can have,” says Salas, describing his chosen career. “But I am very rebel and undisciplined for both works. So I ended up choosing the third option: journalist. Investigate what the power is trying to hide, and tell the world is also a good way of feeling useful.”