Mother Jones Goes Undercover

My Four Months as a Prison Guard
Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer took a job at a state prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. His account is in the July-August 2016 issue.

By Casey Bukro

Just when you think an ethics issue has been put to rest, a Mother Jones magazine reporter spends four months working undercover as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.

“I took a $9 an hour job as a private prison guard in Louisiana,” reporter Shane Bauer wrote in a 35,000 word, six-part report accompanied by two sidebar reports and an editor’s note, plus video.

“I saw stabbings, an escape and prisoners and guards struggling to survive,” Bauer wrote.

The publication’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, wrote that legal intimidation makes investigations of prisons rare, but “it’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots.” She pointed to an 1887 undercover investigation of a women’s mental asylum by New York World reporter Nellie Bly as an early example of the kind of work journalists should be doing. It triggered reforms.

It’s fair to say undercover reporting has fallen into disfavor these days because it often depends on deception, for which a publication can be sued. And it can make journalists look like liars.

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public,” says the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.


Editor Jeffery said Mother Jones, a reader-supported nonprofit news magazine headquartered in San Francisco, followed an ethics checklist writen by Poynter Institute ethicist Bob Steele to assess when undercover reporting might be justifiable. Jeffery paraphrased them this way:

  • When the information obtained is of vital public interest.
  • When other efforts to gain that information have been exhausted.
  • When the journalist is willing to disclose the reason and nature of any deception.
  • When the news organization applies the skill, time and funding needed to fully pursue the story.
  • When the harm prevented outweighs any harm caused.
  • After meaningful deliberation of the ethical and legal issues.

Litigation, said Jeffery, is a reason undercover reporting has become rare. She mentioned the Food Lion case, in which two ABC News producers worked at Food Lion grocery stores in North and South Carolina, documenting the repackaging and sale of spoiled food. They falsified their job applications and omitted their employment with the network.

Food Lion, a grocery chain, sued ABC, alleging fraud, breach of the duty of loyalty, trespass and unfair trade practices. After several verdicts and appeals, eventually ABC was fined $2. But it was a long and expensive legal ordeal.

Mother Jones has a history of being journalistically scrappy. It is named for Mary Harris Jones, a fierce 20th century campaigner for child and worker rights. Originally a Chicago dressmaker, she moved from town to town to support worker struggles in coal mining,  railroads and textiles. She was jailed countless times and proud of it.

“Two see what private prisons are really like,” wrote editor Jeffery, “Shane Bauer applied for a job with the Corrections Corporation of America. He used his own name and Social Security number and he noted his employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones. He did not lie. He spent four months as a guard at a CCA-run Louisiana prison, and then we spent 14 more months reporting and fact-checking.

“We took these extraordinary steps because press access to prisons and jails has been vastly curtailed in recent decades, even as inmates have seen their ability to sue prisons — often the only way potential abuses would pop up on the radar of news organizations or advocates — dramatically reduced. There is no other way to know what truly happens inside but to go there.”

Mother Jones points out that investigating privately operated facilities can be more difficult than investigating government facilities, which have some obligation to be responsive to public inquiry.

Founded in 1983, CCA owns and manages more than 65 correctional and detention facilities in 19 states and the District of Columbia. It is the largest private corrections company in the United States. Facilities are run on contracts with federal, state and local governments.

Essentially, these governments have outsourced their responsibilities for managing prisons. Mother Jones points out that investigating privately operated facilities can be more difficult than investigating government facilities, which have some obligation to be responsive to public inquiry.

The Columbia Journalism Review took note of the Mother Jones investigation, saying: “Undercover reporting is not and should not be a journalistic norm. But it has seen occasional success when reporters have exhausted all other options.”

However, the long Mother Jones report does not appear to contain any evidence that it first tried normal journalistic techniques and encountered obstacles.

No doubt that would have tipped off CCA that Mother Jones was taking an interest in its operations.

Since outsourcing government work is a thing of the future, reporters should learn the best ways to deal with it.

Since CCA owns and operates 65 facilities in 19 states, Mother Jones could have picked a prison in another part of the country and tried conventional reporting. It’s sometimes amazing what reporters can discover if they just ask questions the old-fashioned way. They also could discover the best methods for getting information from privately operated facilities, and whether their contracts with government agencies allow prison condition inspections by outside sources. If not, why not?

Since outsourcing government work is a thing of the future, reporters should learn the best ways to deal with it.

If that did not work, then Mother Jones could have picked another prison in another part of the country for undercover surveillance. The earlier attempt using conventional reporting could be part of the story, showing why the undercover work was necessary in the public interest.

Undercover reporting should not be used to boost television ratings or for flashy media hype.

If the rules for undercover reporting say try conventional reporting first, and you say you’re following the rules, then there should be some evidence that you followed the rules.

Yes, being ethical is hard. It allows for few shortcuts.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

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