Lecture, Advice I delivered to the University of British Columbia, graduate class in Journalism (on being undercover and the human natures of the reporter)

Firstly, in response to undercover reporter/activist James O’Keefe — his main intent seems to be to hurt people.  This was very much on display in his earlier work — acting with malice significantly distorts the deliverables.  What we need in  good journalists is for them to be  sensitive, righteously outraged, perceptive, able to make odd creative links between events and people’s behavior – – we need for them to be fair, idealistic, cynical and empathetic so they can adequately interpert information and behavior and events.  Operating primarily on malice skews the whole endeavor.

1) On the future, the state of in-depth, narrative journalism, at least from a tech kind of view – – I  alluded to some of this when I spoke to you all —  but this article I bookmarked a little while ago is an okay round-up:


 A) And there’s also Adrian Nicole Leblanc, the journalist I mentioned to you in class who does great literary immersion work — struggling for years in the trenches she then writes a classic book and gets a McArthur Grant (the so called genius grant to support her work) with no Foer-like connections.

 2) On undercover journalism:   For me it’s one part personal/one part professional.  The whole dishonesty, lying (even by omission) thing I talked about.  Most people want to keep at least one aspect of their life sacrosanct – – family, religion, job, politics, etc.  Some people keep it all.  I’m definitely not that self-righteous, might’ve come across like that in class, my life is not good like that.  But it’s nice for me to keep one part as pure as I can,  and that’s the journalism part.

 A) My best advice if you do do it, if you feel there’s a need to do something undercover (and there is probably a need somewhere on some important stories), if it’s at all possible stick to the facts as much as possible, stick to the truth as much as possible, so that there’s only the lie of you being there and not announcing you’re a reporter.  Something like might matter to your future sources on other stories.  And it definitely can distract from the point of your article.

 B) On that note, a regret re my psych hospital story, if I had a chance to do it all over:  I would emphasize, make clear in the story that when I was being interviewed by the doctor in the hospital for admission I was trying to not directly, blatantly say I wanted to kill myself.  I tried to keep it more grey (Sometimes I don’t feel like living this life I’m living), sticking to the unfortunate truth as much as possible. Although the advice I got from the mental health help line attendant I called  prior to going to the hospital, the first leg of the reporting, was that the way to get help was to show up and tell them that you’re feeling suicidal and I did tell them  about that call when I showed up at the hospital.  But the article does read, has been read where I put the hospital in the position where they had to take me because I was threatening my death and they had no choice and I think that’s a fault.

 In that world you can pretty quickly and easily lose your liberty just by showing up, asking for help, once you literally go past a certain door or line.

 That was important, as was the fact that most critics of these places (patients) were deemed not credible because they were unbalanced or drugged up while they were in the hospital.  And ultimately it should have been more about what the place was like for people and not as much about who gets admitted and who doesn’t  – – while I was there I saw admitted and quickly released a person way more obviously psychotic, disruptive, a potential threat than I was.   

 C) A smaller issue, and maybe a seemingly ridiculous one, but I didn’t take the heavier duty drug they offered me (more out of fear than to preserve clarity), I took the less potent stuff.  This is a trade-off – – I think more people might’ve thought I was reckless if I had, questioned my judgment,  and maybe it would have blown the whole thing – – I’m sick with side effects and out of it for half the time I’m supposed to be reporting.  But there is a chance it might have been a better piece if I had – – that whole place was primarily about drugging.  Not enough people, myself included, knew (in those pre-blog days – – the point is kind of moot today) what those heavy duty drugs do to a person, what it feels like to be on them.  It’s not just about happy pills.  This might have been too much of a burden safety wise, legally, credibility, etc. for editors to condone and it was done for a serious reputable magazine, I wasn’t just on my own.

Greyer shades of this type of journalism:

There are places in between, or along the spectrum, of straight journalism, the “Food Lion” reporters a reporter anonymously hanging somewhere and taking things in, and undercover. 

 When I was in college I wrote something for the school newspaper  –expose on immigrant laborers in the dining facility and how they, and it turned out, other employees were being treated badly.  It got a strong reaction, even a positive reaction from the management I criticized very harshly (I named a specific manager and got into details of his bad behavior; something I’m not crazy about doing and held off on in future articles – – I was asked about that by a class member on the psych story.  I think it’s possible to expose something adequately but not specifically embarrass or hurt individuals.  But it may also be my lack of a killer instinct; it’s like punching somebody in the face instead of wrestling them down – – I’m not 100% or consistent on this issue though).     

 But I happened to be working part time in that dining facility while I was a student —  no intention to write something, I just needed money and happened on the job, I job I did well.  And I went back in there after the article was published and I continued working there until I graduated that year.  

 A professional example in this area is Ted Conover in the book “NewJack” – – he got himself hired as a guard in a state prison and worked the job legitimately for a while.  Things are less black and white, good/bad in some of these areas.  My opinion is that if you just write about it, produce it with care, and you’ve got the basic law downs, that inherently addresses many of the thorny ethical issues that matter to the reasonable person.


I went through a phase where I thought I had to do something blatantly practical (like provide health care) if I really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

 It sounds like hype but I worked as an EMT for a little bit and people were just as grateful for you helping them in a medical crisis as they were when you wrote something moving.  It’s a good day job.  And today it doesn’t have to be only a day job – – it could be your hobby, or what you’re doing after you’re fired, or what you’re doing while you’re waiting to be hired, or what you’re doing on the side because you’ve been covering zoning issues all day at work so tonight on your site/blog etc. you want to write on how a crime impacted you family, your neighborhood.

 Izzy Stone has a medal named after him at Harvard for independent journalism; he was blogging before there were blogs, wrote a journalist admiringly, a journalist who himself was fired from the Washington Post a couple of years ago (he’s now at the Huffington Post).

A  recent Izzy Stone medal winner, Jon Alpert, happens to be based about 5 subway stops from me, we’re peripherally connected to the same small organization but I don’t know him – – very grass roots and an extraordinary body of work.  Still working and probably has a twitter account worth following. 

 For all the industry gloom stories there are many others out there like Alpert – –  I’m still surprised how many and of the quality of their work.  Some itinerant, some gainfully employed.  Some right in front of you, doing serious work plus raising a family plus teaching you all plus helping his friends and family out on the regular – – doing that day in and day out year after year takes way more fortitude than I have.  Peter Klein is a good role model if you’re in the market; I use him.

 If you want inspiration, or just so you’re aware of somebody like him and what he’s been able to do, I think it’s worth checking Alpert’s bio:


 Best of Luck my colleagues,

Kevin Heldman


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