In publishing a 35,000-word investigation of a Louisiana private prison based on reporter Shane Bauer’s four-month stint as a guard, Mother Jones “walked up to the line of accepted journalism ethics: reporters shouldn’t lie or misrepresent themselves as they pursue a story,” writes Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post.
Bauer used his real name and Social Security number in applying for the $9-an-hour job, and said his previous employer was the parent company of Mother Jones, the Foundation for National Progress. He never let on that he was a reporter, or that he was using recording equipment. (A Google search would have shown that Bauer was famous as one of the American hikers who were jailed in Iran for almost two years from 2009 to 2011.)
“We took these issues very seriously,” said Clara Jeffery, the magazine’s editor in chief. “We felt there was no other way to cast light on privately run prisons.” Mother Jones published despite a legal threat from prison owner Corrections Corp. of America. New York University journalism Prof. Brooke Kroeger, who wrote the 2012 book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception,” said such undercover work is acceptable “but only under very controlled circumstances and for something really important that matters to the public interest.” Ted Conover’s book about his undercover experiences as a prison employee, “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001, which Sullivan says “may suggest that the journalistic establishment sees the merits of such techniques yet is unwilling to fully endorse them.”