You may notice something unusual about today’s News Tribune. It includes an undercover investigation.
While reporters in the movies spend most of their time spying on sources, our work almost always starts with reporters identifying themselves and telling sources what they are writing about.
Restaurant reviews are about the only work we routinely do undercover. We suspect a newspaper restaurant critic who announced herself would get better treatment – and maybe food – than you or I. Because our readers want to know what the experience would be without press credentials, we send our restaurant critic in undercover.
That same reasoning led us to send reporter Rob Carson into a Tacoma cannabis clinic to request a medical marijuana authorization.
The regulation of medical marijuana clinics and dispensaries is a roiling issue as local and state governments decide what to do about them. Most of us have never visited a cannabis clinic, but as voters we may be asked to take a side. A significant part of our job is to inform the electorate, so we saw this as a legitimate news topic.
We wanted to illustrate one part of the process: how a person gets an authorization card to buy marijuana for medical purposes. We weren’t taking a stand for or against the process, but wanted to show how it works. To get the most candid experience, Carson didn’t tell the clinic he was a TNT reporter when he walked in the door.
Going undercover is not without rules. We don’t allow reporters to lie or break the law. If asked what they do for a living, they must tell the truth. In this case, no one asked.
Carson didn’t fake an injury. He has shoulder pain from a fall and allowed the clinic to obtain medical records from his doctor. He didn’t get special privileges; he walked into a clinic open to anyone.
Carson didn’t break the law. Obtaining an authorization card is not illegal. The News Tribune didn’t use it to buy marijuana, which the federal government considers against the law.
Additionally, we talked to the nurse practitioner who signed Carson’s authorization after he obtained it. We told her Carson was our reporter and that he was writing about the experience. Admittedly, she wasn’t happy.
That conversation led to another interesting aspect of the story – that some medical professionals who sign authorizations are themselves working undercover to protect other parts of their practice. We added that to the story Friday.
In our newsroom, reporters don’t decide for themselves when to go undercover. Using this investigative tool comes only after a decision by editors that it’s the only way to tell a story. We think it’s best used sparingly.
ONLINE NEWS CONFERENCE
John Henrikson, our assistant managing editor for digital, was in Boston a week ago attending the Online News Association conference.
He offers these observations from a self-described “nerd in training”:
Facebook, Twitter and Google were well-represented at the conference. They view journalism as premium content for their users and are creating new tools to help us get the maximum value out of social media.
As more and more data becomes available, journalists are finding creative ways to organize and make sense of it through interactive maps, charts and databases.
People no longer sit passively in front of the television during big news, sporting and entertainment events. They tap away on laptops, tablets and smartphones looking for conversation, context and more information. News organizations are getting in on this “second screen” phenomenon. (Go to our Seahawks Insider during today’s game, for instance, for a live chat with reporters and fellow fans.)
“I didn’t hear much hand-wringing about paywalls and business models,” Henrikson said. “I heard a lot of talk about finding and serving our audiences and using technology to improve journalism.”
For more on the conference, go to ONA11.journalists.org.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434