Submersion Journalism

Is it ethical to disguise yourself as a businessman and interview Washington D.C. lobbyists about how they can help promote a totalitarian government? Is it okay to tape those conversations?

Can a reporter sign up for a poetry conference, attend without identifying he is a reporter, and write about it for Harper’s Magazine?

Is it okay to spend a year as a prison guard and not tell your colleagues that you want to write about life inside Sing Sing?

These were some of the questions that came up Monday night at a panel discussion put on by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. The event was tied to the release of a new book called Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person, a collection of pieces from Harper’s Magazine.

I went because I wanted to hear Ted Conover, the author or numerous first person books, including Newjack, about the year he spent as a corrections officer at Sing Sing prison in New York. Other panelists included Michael Pollan, Roger D. Hodge, the editor of Harpers, and Jake Silverstein, who has a piece in the collection and is currently editor of the Texas Monthly. Cynthia Gorney, a professor at the grad school with Pollan, moderated the discussion.

I didn’t get to hear enough about Conover’s techniques or what he is working on now. I did learn, however, that when he was an undergraduate at Amherst he went to visit Neil Henry, then a reporter at the Washington Post. (Henry is a professor at the j-school and emceed the event) Henry had done two pieces of immersion reporting for the Post, one where he disguised himself as a homeless man for two months and one where he worked as a migrant worker. Conover wanted to ask Henry about his techniques. Who would have guessed in 1980 that Conover would one day become master of the form?

There were really two different discussions going on. One involved more general reporting where the journalist is a subject of sorts. Michael Pollan’s attempt to grow opium and his subsequent troubles with the law fall into that category. Pollan also bought a steer cow and followed its life cycle for a story.

The other category involves outright deception or acts of omission. Roger Hodge talked about a story Ken Silverstein did for Harpers where he pretended to want to hire a lobbyist to work for the corrupt government of Turkmenisten. Silverstein wanted to find out how lobbyists manipulate reporters and the government, so he pretended to be part of a fictitious group called the Maldon Group. He set up a website for the group, got a cell phone with a London phone number (where the Maldon Group supposedly was located) and then made appointments all over town. The result was an 2007 expose that showed how lobbyists have no compunction about working with governments that terrorize their own citizens.

Some of the best reporting comes from deception but most reporters and papers claim they only use it as a last resort. Cynthia Gorney tried to generate a discussion about the ethical issues around submersion reporting, but the panelists did not disagree. All said they were generally opposed to deception but thought it could be used in certain circumstances.

The panel discussion was only marginally interesting. However I bought the book and read Silverstein’s article. While I am uncomfortable with the fact that he taped all his conversations with lobbyists (in Washington D.C. it is legal to tape a conversation if just one person knows it is happening) the piece is enlightening. Those lobbyists really are scumbags. (Big surprise) But to hear their words and strategies is downright frightening. It is clear that with the right amount of money, any reprehensible organization can put a positive spin on news and events.

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