7. What to Show? What to Disclose?

Video proof in hand, Winter returned to the newsroom  to consult  Donovan about how the materials would be used. They were confident that the fruits of their undercover investigation were ethical — the story was in the public interest, they had exhausted all other options and they would disclose the fact that it was an undercover investigation in the published piece.

Where they were stumped, however, was how the footage and information from the breeders should be used. Was it fair to identify the breeders in the story by name and use images of their faces?

On one hand, the breeders Winter had visited were selling illegal animals in violation of Ontario’s ban. On the other hand, those breeders were only two of dozens Winter had located in the Toronto area with a quick search on the classified website Hoobly.com.  While these breeders were part of the problem, they were certainly not the extent of it.

Moreover, the undercover footage pointed Winter to two different veterinarians who were named by the breeders. The breeders claimed the veterinarians knew their dogs were pit bulls and that the vets listed other breeds on the public record. Given the potential impact on the vets’ reputations, Winter contacted both vets for comment. Both vets explained that they would never knowingly forge breed identity in official documentation – though they both said that it can be challenging to distinguish pit bull puppies, especially at a young age. One also told Winter that he believed the pit bull ban was ineffective. Their comments provided more evidence of the nuanced challenges the ban presents for vets across board. With the vets’ interviews in hand, there was mounting evidence that the issue of enforcing the ban was a systemic one – not just a case of a few bad apples.

There were plenty of ways the story could go. Winter was to be the writer of the piece and, having seen the puppies with his own eyes, he could attest to the fact that they were being sold. The photos of the puppies could be used with or without showing the breeders.

“We went back and forth quite a bit,” says Winter, describing the discussion back at the newsroom once the undercover reporting was complete [1].

According to Osborne, many editors tend to shy away from identifying sources in undercover reporting in order to avoid exposing their publication, its reporters and the sources themselves to elevated levels of risk. He explained that, in many cases, journalists can effectively make the same point and tell a similar story without the potential risk. However, Osborne does not believe that, logic applies in this specific case. He contends that when a source is caught breaking the law, their illegal action negates the journalists’ obligation to protect their identity [2].

“If I caught people selling pit bull puppies in defiance of the law – it is illegal what they’re doing – I would not hesitate to show their faces,” says Osborne [3].

Winter and Donovan were not quite so sure. “For me there were sort of two issues at play. First of all, we’re reporters, it’s our job to gather as much information as possible and make it public – that’s what we do. And in this case it was unclear whether really or not they would be at immediate risk if we published their name,” says Winter [4]

However, with only a few short days before the story was to be published, a decision had to be made about whether to identify the breeders. In addition, there was also the issue of whether to name the veterinarians.


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

[2] Robert Osborne. Interview done by Brittany Spencer. 2016

[3] Ibid.

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

Next: 8. Epilogue