You’re not doing anything illegal. It’s all for the greater good.
But it’s still terrifying to go undercover with a hidden camera—becauseyou might get caught! After 43 years as a reporter, I’ve learned three rules for making sure I’m successful.
The rules work. Our undercover stories have changed laws and changed lives. We closed a cult church, changed the rules for Massachusetts doctors, shut down a puppy mill, proved gender discrimination in car sales (I know, but when you catch it undercover it’s still shocking), caught appliance repair people breaking appliances in order to charge homeowners to fix them, and revealed sex offenders posing as psychologists who “specialize” in treating sexual assault victims.
All for the good, right? But nevertheless, there’s no escaping that in doing something to keep people honest—I have to lie. I was not, as I portrayed myself, a woman trying to get pregnant. Or a person trying to buy a car. Or a person with a broken furnace. Or a sexual assault victim. I lied.
When we decide to go undercover, it’s because there’s no way else to get the story. If I told the appliance repair guy that I was Hank Phillippi Ryan from Channel 7, do you think he would have behaved the same way? If I had told the doctor I was me, and not a woman trying to get pregnant, would he have lied to me about his massive malpractice losses? Of course not. Sometimes the only way for a reporter to get the real story–is to pretend they are not a reporter.
Rule one for going undercover—you truly must believe you are who you say you are. With almost every cell in your brain, you have to—exactly as in method acting—subsume your real self into the person you are portraying. You can only save one tiny sliver of your mind for the real you. The real you—the interloper reporter who needs to get exactly the right shots, talk to exactly the right person, make sure the camera is rolling and recording.
And that’s one of the elements of my new book THE FIRST TO LIE—the lure of that fake persona. What in you decided that being your undercover character was more desirable and more beneficial than being who you really are? I wondered—what if becoming someone else could get you what you want? And the book began to take shape.
Another secret? Your quarry does not expect you to be wearing a hidden camera. When I have one rolling in my purse, or have a “button cam” in my jacket (with the lens looking exactly like a button, the wire snaked inside my shirt, and the guts of a camera in a fanny pack around my waist), I know it’s there with every ounce of my being.
But I keep my telling myself—my subject does not suspect the camera exists. They are not looking at my purse. They are not looking at my shirt. The camera is hidden. So you have to remember: you can’t fidget with it, or fuss with it, or adjust it. Before you enter the room, make one last check. Make sure it’s rolling and recording. And, of course, hidden. Then forget about it. Take a deep breath—and go.
And in writing THE FIRST TO LIE
, I realized that these days, hidden cameras do not have to be hidden! There’s nothingmore common than someone carrying a cell phone. Simply (and brazenly) holding a cell phone, taking pictures just like everyone else is, draws absolutely no attention. The key then is to hide the fact that you are using it! Don’t brazenly point it at your subject. Pretend you are taking a photo of something else. Or act like you are using it as a phone. And when no one notices: roll.
Real life sidebar: I once went into a skeevy auto body shop, accompanied by a photographer who had the hidden camera. I had told him to keep it out of sight.
The plan was that I would go in first, to distract and talk to the proprietor, and then the photographer would come in, as if her were a separate customer, to shoot what was going on. Apparently the cameraman did not understand the concept of “hidden” camera.
He’d tucked it under a clipboard he was carrying. Which meant, of course, that it was completely hidden—but only from him. The autobody shop proprietor, however, could instantly see it. When the photog walked in, the first thing the guy behind the counter said was: What are you doing with that camera? At that point, I had to hide the fact that I even knew him! I turned, all upset, and said “Hey, what’re you doing with that camera? I do not want to be photographed!” The photographer skedaddled, and, I have to say, we did not work together again.
The final secret? Remember you’re not doing anything illegal. In Massachusetts, you cannot record someone’s audio without permission, so all of my hidden camera work has been silent. But taking silent video is perfectly within your rights. If you get caught, they can yell at you, or throw you out—but that’s about it.
In my reporting life, the ethical questions are constant. We ask: when the stakes are the greater good, is it acceptable to mislead someone to get to the truth? It depends on who’s being harmed—and who’s being helped.
In THE FIRST TO LIE, one fictional character asks: “When the stakes are life and death, what do a few lies matter?” The answer is exactly the same as in reality—is the good guy the liar? Or the bad guy?
And in real life and in fiction, the key is the result. When you get that outrageous estimate for your broken-not-broken furnace, or video of your not-a-real-psychologist pretending he’s taking care of you, or tape an often-sued doctor shaking his head “no” when you ask him whether he’s had a history of malpractice losses. Just as in fiction—when the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them? Then you know it’s worth it.
Thank you to The Real Book Spy and Hank Phillippi Ryan! Readers, have you ever gone undercover? If so, were you scared your true identity would be revealed? If not, do you think you have the guts to do so?