Going undercover is “really difficult” in the age of social media, investigative reporters argue

Posted on: November 12, 2019 by Mariella Brown

Social media has made undercover journalism “really difficult”, according to Jonathan Calvert, Insight Editor at The Sunday Times.

“Nowadays nobody exists unless they have a strong social media presence. So, if you’re pretending to be someone else you have to set up websites and Twitter pages and make them look real,” he said.

Investigations Editor of The Telegraph Claire Newell worked on the Sir Philip Green story agreed that it is harder to create a believable cover.

She said: “People will be trying to check you out in a way they wouldn’t have done before. If you don’t have a Facebook or LinkedIn account then people will start asking questions.”

Chaired by ITV journalist and broadcaster Charlene White, the panel ‘Investigations: Are they still relevant in the clickbait world?’ nonetheless urged young reporters to be “hungry” for undercover work.

Newell continued: “When it comes to people like Sir Philip you’ve got to be prepared for a bit of a fight. 

“It’s crucial for you as a reporter to think if you’re going to take this on, you’re in it for the long haul. That’s why we do this job, to make sure we are holding people like him to account.”

Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror Paul Henderson agreed, arguing that his readers still care about public investigations.

“People depend on us to get their stories out there and make a change,” he said.

Tom Bristow, Head of Archant Investigations Unit, said despite the challenges it is important for newsrooms to give trainee reporters the skills they need to succeed in investigations.

“The attitude of young journalists is so important at the start, you’ve got to be hungry for it,” he said.

Jane Bradley, Investigations Correspondent at BuzzFeed News, said: “We have really got to fight for people to believe what we publish. We always try to show our workings, we’re very transparent.

“The media overall is in a crisis of trust. That shows why good thorough reporting is more important than it has ever been.”

Julia Atherley

The Investigations panel took places at the Society of Editors conference on November 12.