Cleaning supplies
photo by: Sanja Gjenero

While cleaning a five-bedroom house in a wealthy Toronto neighbourhood, Jan Wong had to pee. Venturing into the 11-year-old son’s private en suite bathroom, she was disgusted by the un-flushed toilet and the urine on the seat—some of it dried. In her 2006 Globe and Mail series “Maid for a Month,” Wong cleaned other people’s toilets, floors and kitchens to write about life on the bottom rung of the job market and, in her characteristically forthright nature, revealed the grime of the rich whose houses she cleaned.

photo by: Sanja Gjenero
photo by: Sanja Gjenero

But more than two years later, Wong is still trying to clean up the mess. Claiming deceit and invasion of privacy, one family is seeking $50,000 in damages against her, CTV globemedia Publishing Inc., which owns the Globe, and the cleaning company—which then launched a cross-claim against Wong and the Globe‘s publisher for fraud, deceit and breach of contract. Although Wong used her own name, she didn’t mention working for the Globe when she applied to Toronto Maids—called “Maid-It-Up Maids” in the series. She changed the names of all the people she wrote about—her boss, her co-workers and some families—but the Nitsopouloses claimed that details such as the neighbourhood, family makeup and ample pant-sizes were enough to give them away. They also allege they suffered embarrassment when friends recognized them in the story.

What Wong allegedly did “is enough to make a tabloid editor blush,” says Sam Hall, the family’s lawyer. He argues the family was wronged not just by what was published, but because Wong wasn’t really a maid. Had the Nitsopouloses known the truth, they’d have never let her in. There has never been a decision against a journalist for deceit and invasion of privacy in Canadian common law and the Globe tried to have the case thrown out, arguing it was a dressed-up libel suit that the family hadn’t pursued in time, but the Superior Court of Ontario disagreed. In September, the court ruled that the suit could go ahead.

Reporters often go undercover in investigative pieces, but it’s also a popular technique in participatory journalism—that infamous “I” writing—in which the writer plays an active role in the story. “You’re going places that other people can’t go,” says Susan Bourette, who won a National Magazine Award for her 2003 exposé of a Maple Leaf Foods slaughterhouse. “You’re revealing for them a world that they don’t have access to, and they want to see it.” But if Wong and the Globe are found liable, it could put a chill on undercover journalism in Canada.

Despite its many critics, undercover reporting has a long and distinguished history. Nellie Bly entered an infamous New York insane asylum in the 1880s by pretending to be mentally ill, and wrote about the abuses patients suffered. George Orwell wrote detailed accounts of living in poverty in Paris and London in the late 1920s. In the ’70s and ’80s, Pam Zekman and other Chicago-based journalists went undercover in nursing homes and abortion clinics. Trying to go beyond “he said, she said” stories, these writers sought first-person, hands-on accounts of what was really going on.

But in 1979, the Pulitzer Board denied Zekman and another reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times an award for their daring series on corruption in the city, reproaching their deceptive tactics—opening their own tavern, the Mirage, and documenting visits by city officials who solicited bribes. Though the board’s decision led to a wane in undercover journalism at newspapers, the practice grew increasingly popular on TV. Then, in the 1990s, the grocery chain, Food Lion Inc. sued ABC reporters for fraud and breach of contract after they lied on job applications and used hidden cameras to expose unsanitary practices and won $5 million. Even though the damages were dropped on appeal, the result was a chill on undercover reporting.

In a column this past fall, the Toronto Star‘s Rosie Dimanno called going undercover “the laziest form of reporting existent,” berating Wong and the Globe for sinking to “such schlocky tactics.” Although there’s undoubtedly a lot of cheap, stunt-inspired undercover stories out there—like low-budget exposés of bad carpet cleaners—Bourette defends the practice when it’s done well. For “Butchered,” published in Report on Business magazine, Bourette interviewed Maple Leaf executives and union staff, talked to workers and academics, read articles and looked up stats—all of the research she’d normally do for a story—but also went undercover, working gruelling, nauseating days at the slaughterhouse. The experience was so taxing she’s not sure she’d do it again. “You don’t get paid well enough for that kind of work.”

And some argue she shouldn’t do it again. Journalists are in the truth-telling business, explains Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute. They should have a compelling reason to lie and deceive: the story must be of vital public interest or prevent profound harm, with all alternatives exhausted. Journalists shouldn’t do it to win a prize, scoop the competition or spend less money, he argues. According to the Canadian Association of Journalists, misrepresentation by a reporter is only justified “in cases where illegal or fraudulent activity is strongly suspected to have taken place, the public trust is abused or public safety is at risk.” Although no rules are set in stone, these guidelines are so restrictive it’s not clear if stories on working conditions in slaughterhouses or domestic cleaning would pass the test.

Although he admits there are some rare cases in which deception is justified, Steele thinks it’s simplistic for reporters to go undercover to get past P.R. spin. What they’re saying is “We’ll lie, cheat and steal ourselves in order to reveal that they’re liars cheaters and stealers. I don’t accept that,” says Steele. While agreeing with the need for tough guidelines, Fred Kuntz, former editor-in-chief of the Star, says that when it comes to nailing “villains, crooks and criminals,” sometimes you need to play a few tricks. He uses the Star‘s 2007 feature on deceptive immigration consultants as an example. “It’s very difficult to (get that story) by saying, ‘Hello, we’re from the Toronto Star, are you engaged in corrupt practices, are you counselling people to lie and portray themselves as refugees when they’re not?’ and they’ll say, ‘No, we would never do such a thing.'”

Robert Cribb, an investigative reporter at the Star who’s gone undercover for several stories including one on fraudulent telemarketing companies, says that “bad guys” are able to continue what they’re doing because so many journalists just wander around asking for opinions. In some cases, he argues, reporters need to discover what’s actually going on instead of merely reporting the conflicting sides, which essentially leaves the readers with nothing.

Though “Maid for a Month” peeks into people’s homes uninvited, Wong also details her working conditions, describing how it feels to be a maid—or at least how it feels to be an educated, well-off journalist working temporarily as a maid. Although these homes are private, for the maids that clean them, these homes are places of employment. Plus, the only people able to identify the family, argues Brian MacLeod Rogers, a Toronto-based media lawyer, are those who likely already know most of the details anyway and wouldn’t think any less of the family. Although he doubts the case against Wong and the Globe will go anywhere, he thinks it is cause for concern.

Bourette already feels the chill. She’s not bothering to pitch an undercover story she’s been thinking about for years, saying “I don’t see anyone who’s willing to risk doing it in this climate.”

Listen to journalist Carolyn Morris speak about her experiences writing “Undercover Blues” on the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s Podcast.

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About the author

Carolyn Morris was the Head of Research for the Spring 2009 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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