Toronto Star on the ethics of going undercover

Toronto Star reporter Dale
Brazao went undercover as a resident of a retirement home and discovered
untrained staff, unsanitary conditions and seniors left in dirty
diapers. In a column, Star public editor Kathy English explains why the the paper’s investigative team opted for the cloak-and-dagger approach to the story.

Brazao kept a diary of his time at In Touch Retirement Home in Toronto. Here is an excerpt:

“1:07 pm – No toilet paper or paper towels in the bathroom. Dirty white towel for everyone. Sides of toilet seat soiled. Shower curtain stained with crud. Plastic mat in tub is brown with dirt. Screen in window torn wide open.

“6:15 pm – Some residents sit in TV room watching news. James, fellow with Down Syndrome, is in bathroom calling for help. Staff do not come. Thirty minutes pass.

“SMALL STEPS: Toronto Star reporter Dale Brazao was faced with a dilemma. What to do if he sees someone in need, or something that he could fix? On the first night when Sam fell off the chair, with nobody around, Brazao helped him up. As the days progressed, Brazao complained vigorously about problems in the home, things very important to residents, such as lack of toilet paper and a filthy tub. When he walked out of the home seven days later there was toilet paper in the bathroom, a clean tub mat and the quality of food had increased slightly.”

English writes:

“The Star had received complaints from credible sources outlining potentially serious problems within the west end Toronto retirement facility. Understanding that retirement homes in Ontario are unregulated, and vulnerable elderly residents are at risk, investigations editor Kevin Donovan decided it was necessary to send a reporter inside to pose as a resident.

“‘It became clear to me that this was a rare case where we could not properly tell the story without seeing what was going on inside.’ Donovan told me following publication last week of the Star’s powerful, heartbreaking investigation in which Brazao found untrained staff, dirty conditions and elderly residents left in filthy diapers and fed substandard food.”

English points out that undercover investigative journalism has long been used to expose wrongdoing: it got its heyday in the 70s with a series of high-profile undercover exposés, but is “rooted in the muckracking tradition of the early 20th century.” The poster child is reporter Nellie Bly, who, in order to expose the living conditions within a mental institution, had herself committed. “But in the years since,” English writes, “journalists have become far more aware of the risks to journalistic credibility of using deceptive means to get a story and much less undercover reporting has been done.”

She writes:

“The Star’s investigative team seldom uses deception to get a story. In 35 years of reporting for the Star,  this was the third time Brazao had gone undercover. The newsroom ethics manual stipulates that undercover reporting should be undertaken only in “rare cases” as a “last resort” to get a story where the public interest justifies it. Senior editors must approve.”

She notes that the primary issue of discussion was concern about the privacy of other residents. She says “great care” was taken not identify anyone in either photos or story. English writes:

“I have no doubt this was the right course of action. This investigation met all of the thresholds journalism ethicists have laid down for undercover reporting: The information is vital to the public interest (particularly given the demographics of an aging population and a severe shortage of nursing home beds); there was no other way to get this story and know the conditions inside the home, and the nature of the deception was fully disclosed to readers.

“As well, notes Donovan, the investigation was fully supported by ‘more classic’ reporting by fellow I-team reporter Moira Welsh. That included searching public records and talking to sources who could reveal what they knew about this retirement home.”

Reader feedback to the story has been a mixture of shock and sadness. English quotes a one reader, who wrote the Star to say, “The only way for change to take place, to ensure the safety of those who are vulnerable, without advocates and without money, is for journalism like this to be done.” English agrees: “Indeed, this was journalism that made a difference. Various Ontario cabinet ministers, as well as Premier Dalton McGuinty, have vowed to take action and crack down on retirement homes.”