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A Deeper Look into the Most Underused Method of Reporting

April 23rd, 2021:

“Through the course of my digging, it has become clear that there has never been a time in American History in which companies or governments weren’t trying to make money from other people’s captivity.”

This quote from Shane Bauer in the introduction sets the tone for the rest of his book, “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment.” This book is an eye-opening look into the American prison system and the business of correction and the motives behind it. Bauer examines the inner workings of one private prison, Winn Correction Center in Winnfield, Louisiana.

Spending four months working at the prison as a corrections officer and as an undercover journalist, Bauer’s undercover reporting reveals the horrid treatments imposed by the correction center onto its prisoners, the neglect towards them, and even the violence that goes on inside the prison between its inmates. By describing what he witnessed first-hand inside a prison and providing secretly recorded dialogue, Bauer’s book does a fantastic job at giving readers a truly authentic look inside a privately run prison and the operations behind all the prisons that run under the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).

His book also gives us a look at the way prisoners think and act, not only towards the prison’s employees that are holding them captive and preventing them from accessing the outside world, but also how the prisoners act towards each other. Some relationships between the inmate are great and then some end up in stabbings, killings, and rapes. Having spent four months himself in solitary confinement in Iran for getting a little too close to the Iranian border while on a hike in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bauer was able to look at his own struggles as a prisoner not only from a different perspective, but from the complete opposite side. It was his turn to use some force on inmates and develop relationships with some of them as a corrections officer, some being good relationships, and some bad ones.

In addition to giving readers a huge glance at America’s corrections system, this book also dives into the history of the prison business and its ongoing structural corruption affecting the lives of thousands, its monetary motives, and its use of physical torture, forced labor and slavery. Ultimately, Bauer exposes one of the biggest goals of private prisons, which is merely to profit from each prisoner and save as much money wherever possible by cutting funding for recreational programs for the prisoners and barely paying its corrections officers a proper wage.

The neglect towards the inmates is very apparent throughout the book. For example, the prison would ignore harassment complaints and requests for medical help from the prisoners unless they were absolutely going to die without it. At the Winn Corrections Center, the options for prisoners with mental health issues were scarce, with only one full-time social worker and a couple who only worked part-time, all in charge of over 1,500 inmates.

“Just because I have twenty years left in prison doesn’t mean that I’m nonexistent and that I don’t matter,” complained an inmate named Damien in Bauer’s book who committed suicide while imprisoned.

More than anything, Bauer’s journey is a prime example of undercover reporting for the purpose of muckraking. Simply put, undercover journalism involves the reporter going undercover in a community or an institution without disclosing who they really are to shed light on a pressing issue. Usually, it is done when there is absolutely no other means of getting the information, when that information is of public interest and might lead to legal change or the protection of people’s lives, and when the benefits outweigh the risks, such as possible lawsuits. The question is whether it is worth taking down a particular system.

One classic example of undercover reporting that led to a lawsuit is Food Lion vs. Capital Cities, where two producers from ABC News faked job applications and got hired at Food Lion grocery stores without disclosing themselves as journalists and secretly captured various footage in the store. In a broadcast, they reported their findings, which included unsafe and unsanitary working conditions and unsanitary handlings of food. Food Lion sued ABC News for “fraud, breach of the duty of loyalty, trespass and unfair trade practices under North Carolina law,” also arguing that they used illegal gathering practices. The courts ruled in favor of the grocery store, declaring that reporters who lie on employment applications so they can obtain access to private facilities for newsgathering are not protected by the First Amendment and can be liable for trespassing private property or liable for other offenses. They were trespassing not by getting hired and entering the stores, but by videotaping without consent. However, the information that the ABC producers gathered was not in question.

While undercover reporting might sound appealing and beneficial, there are several ethical considerations to make. Most news organizations, like the Associated Press and the Society for Professional Journalism don’t recommend it to begin with and would rather have their reporters utilize all other means of obtaining information that are more transparent first, and leave the undercover method as a last resort, said Matthew Dewey, Communication Studies professor at Loyola Marymount University. Right away, this method of reporting goes against some of the most important elements and ethical principles of journalism.

Immediately by being undercover, you are in this ethical crisis between either not disclosing or lying about who you are and what you're doing and then being transparent and truthful as an ethical reporter,” said Dewey.

Another example of undercover journalism that is ethically questionable under journalistic standards took place in 1977 when journalists at the Chicago Sun-Times bought a bar in a city known for its organized crime, political bribery and corruption by city inspectors while inspecting small businesses. Hidden cameras were placed inside the bar to investigate city inspectors as they did their jobs. Footage found these inspectors taking bribes to overlook anything that was wrong with the condition of the business and approve it, even if it was unsafe. While this undercover reporting exposed corruption and led to some reform, it still brought up ethical questions regarding some of journalism’s ethical standards. These involve misrepresenting oneself to bring out information from subjects, enticing subjects to break the law, and recording without consent.

It is also important to remember that journalists are not above the law and can still get punished for breaking it, said Dewey. This is the core issue in Food Lion vs. Capital Cities. The court decided that the ABC producers broke the law by trespassing the inner workings of a grocery store, considering it an invasion of privacy. Being a journalist does not grant someone the right to trespass, even if it means missing out on important information.

Another ethical principle to take into consideration is doing no harm. It’s important to think and ask questions, such as whether it is worth it to break a certain law or worth the collateral harm that a certain project can cause to others (and even yourself), said Dewey. In certain cases, though, if undercover reporting is the only way to publicly expose corruption of an institution or business that terribly mistreats hundreds if not thousands of people, an exception can be made, especially if it benefits society.

Going undercover to expose somebody's personal affair or business transactions? I don't necessarily know if that's worth it. It's seems more like sensationalism,” said Dewey. “If this is really a larger [issue], you would have to make the argument that this person is somehow connected to some larger structural issue that would be exposed by this, that you couldn't get in any other means, [and] that you couldn't somehow subpoena or go to the police.”

In Bauer’s case, going undercover was the only option to get the information he needed for his story. In the introduction of his book, he states that his project was of public interest and he would eventually disclose himself to his readers and to those he was investigating, as well as disclose the reasoning for any deception that took place. Additionally, he had the funding necessary to pursue the story and the good that could come from the story and the harm prevented by it outweighed any harm caused.

“As a journalist, it’s nearly impossible to get an unconstrained look inside our penal system,” said Bauer in the introduction. “When prisons do let reporters in, it’s usually for carefully managed tours and monitored interviews with inmates.”

Another older, example of undercover journalism is Nellie Bly’s reporting in a woman’s insane asylum in 1887, marking the beginning of undercover journalism. Nellie faked insanity and got herself admitted into the asylum involuntarily, spent a total of 10 days there and was subjected to treatments of brutality and violence. As Bauer stated in his book, her reporting led to public outrage and legal action, including the increase of the budget of the Department of Public Charities and a change in regulations that would later make certain that only the seriously and chronically ill were admitted into the asylum.

In this instance, there was no other way for Bly to access the institution and gather the information she wanted other than by being an actual patient in it herself. Ultimately though, she benefitted a larger group of people. However, she did do harm to herself by allowing herself to be subjected to torture for ten straight days at the mental asylum. Though unanticipated, Bauer’s job as a corrections officer also negatively impacted his personal life and well-being. Tensions rose between him and his wife, Sarah. Sarah encouraged him to do the undercover project, but it eventually got to a point where Bauer was changing as a person, always angry, always complaining about the prison and his problems with inmates and colleagues rather than the issues with the system itself.

It’s easy to want to go undercover and say that you’re fighting a social injustice and fighting for a change in society, but economics, technology, ethics, and law all influence and go into the practice of undercover reporting and can get the reporter into trouble, said Dewey. If it’s something a journalist is considering, the best thing to do would be to talk to their editor and maybe the newspaper’s lawyer who can consider all the possible ethical and legal scenarios and decide if going undercover is the best and most necessary option for the story being pursued.

“There's also this nostalgic appeal to going undercover,” said Dewey. It seems very romantic [and] we can also do this subtly to get us in trouble. One of the ways that people go undercover that's not necessarily glamorous is just by acknowledging that you're not a reporter.”

Disclosure is important after the fact because according to the principles involving transparency and truth, a journalist should tell their audience why they had no other choice but to go undercover. It gives them credibility as a reporter to tell the audience why they had to sneak around and prove that they could not obtain the information by any other means.

The people, system or institution accused or exposed in the story should also be allowed to at least respond or even challenge the story, said Dewey. This is exactly what Bauer did when he attended a board meeting at the CCA headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee and presented some of his findings to them. The CCA responded to his disclosure as a journalist by threatening to sue and issued a statement questioning and criticizing his journalistic standards. They claimed that Bauer was bound by the company’s code of conduct, which states that regular, everyday happenings inside the prison are “trade secrets” and accused him of “jeopardizing the safety and security” of the prison and its employees by not just interviewing CCA staff instead of going undercover. After successfully exposing an entire system that negatively impacts countless lives every day, it was expected of the CCA respond with anger.

It is also more responsible to attack an entire structure as opposed to attacking one person, said Dewey. Bauer attacked the entire private prison system, more specifically the CCA. He did not blame the prison guards or the inmates themselves for the way private prisons are ran. He acknowledged that the guards and prisoners were just a part of a system that is enabling the corruption and torture of the inmates.

“Rather than actually saying here's the evil person is very responsible because we tend to want to just blame one person and think that our structure is perfect,” said Dewey. “It's (Bauer’s book) attacking a broader prison industrial complex.” (word count: 2115)


1. Bauer, Shane. American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment. Penguin Books, 2019.

2. Bernard, Diane. “She Went Undercover to Expose an Insane Asylum's Horrors. Now Nellie Bly Is Getting Her Due.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 July 2019,

3. Dewey, Matthew. Personal Interview. 14 April 2021.

4. Mejia, Paula. “How a Chicago Dive Bar Exposed Corruption and Changed Journalism.” Atlas Obscura, 8 Mar. 2018,

5. “The Landmark Food Lion Case.” The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,

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