4. When is Undercover Work Justified?

Most journalistic organizations have codes of conduct to guide the decisions of reporters, including actions while undercover. The Toronto Star is no exception. The Star’s Newsroom Policy and Journalistic Standards Guide states that “journalists must clearly identify themselves as journalists gathering information for possible publication, be it in person, on the telephone or through social media platforms.” [1]

On the subject of the exception to this rule — namely undercover reporting — the Star’s guide includes the following:

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 and the event to be investigated is a sustained, consistent practice, not a “gotcha.” Advance approval by the managing editor is required. [2]

“There was pretty much no way to get access to [pit bull breeders], we felt,” said Winter. Winter admits that his undercover work on the pit bull story was a gotcha. “I was basically lying to the breeders that I contacted. We fabricated a back story for me and I approached them as something that I wasn’t. The way they run things at the Star, before anyone can go [undercover], it has to be signed off all the way to the top.” In this case, the decision was vetted by Kevin Donovan who brought it to managing editor Irene Gentle for final approval.

But before the decision was brought to Gentle for approval, Winter had to exhaust all other possible options, starting with cold-calling breeders he found online.

“In the course of my research I approached five breeders online. The first one I phoned, I told him I was a reporter from The Toronto Star and he hung up on me,” says Winter. [3]

Donovan says that there was no other way to really confirm that it was pit bull puppies being sold. According to Donovan, the Star does not take the decision to go undercover lightly. This was only the third time in the last five years that the technique had been actually used — the other two involved investigating the slaughter of racehorses and and going undercover to purchase a gun. “Journalists and journalism students often focus on this – undercover reporting – and its ethical issues. It is so rare that we go undercover,” said Donovan. [4]

Donovan does not wholly share in concerns among journalists and consumers journalism about how the public perceives undercover reporting. “I think the public is pretty smart. I think they know that journalists aren’t doing it a lot and that when we do, there’s a very good public reason for it,” said Donovan.

Part of the key to ensuring public understanding and acceptance of the tactics is to be as transparent as possible. “At The Star, we try to be very transparent and we try to describe why we did it … in the pit bull story The Star was trying to find out if the ban was working and if there were pit bulls out there,” explained Donovan. [5]



[2] Ibid.

[3] Jesse Winter. Interview done by Abby Plener. 2016.

[4] Kevin Donovan. Interview done by Brittany Spencer and Abby Plener. 2016.

[5] Ibid.

Next: 5. The Pit Bull Problem