Even though real-life journalists’ journey is different from their portrayal in movies and novels, it by no means is without risks and instances of heroism. With my novel ‘Tears for Strangers’ is about an intrepid journalist Nimisha Raste who goes to great lengths to break a murder story. While researching about the novel, I happened to come across a few instances in the history where journalists went undercover at great risk to their lives to break stories. Here are a few such examples:
Novelist Upton Sinclair and meatpacking industry
In 1906, American novelist Upton Sinclair worked in disguise in Chicago’s meatpacking plant to learn about the conditions immigrant workers faced in the plants and the unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry. He based his novel Jungle on this experience. His expose might have been one of the reasons for the passage of Pure Food and Drug Act and Federal Meat Inspection Act, both passed in 1906.
Antonio Salas and Terrorism
In The Untouchables, Sean Connery asks Kevin Costner “what are you willing to do? And then, what are you willing to do?” For the journalists who goes under the pseudonym Antonio Salas the answer will be “how about undergoing circumcision to pass off as a radical Islamist?” Few journalists have gone to the length that this man has. His undercover adventures include going undercover as a radical Islamist after the Madrid commuter train blasts that killed 191 people, as a skinhead supporter of the Real Madrid football club and working as a ‘dealer of women’ to expose a child prostitution ring. Pretty impressive, huh?
Walter Francis and White Southern Racism in the USA
As a light skinned and blue eyed Walter Francis White was in a unique position to pass off as a white man. As a 12-year-old, he witnessed racial riots in Atlanta, Georgia, an experience that shaped his life. After graduating from Atlanta University in 1916, he went undercover for as many as eight race riots and 41 lynchings. His subsequent books debunked many theories such as racial violence was needed to protect white women from sexual violence.
Madeline Dotty went Orange is the new Black, Voluntarily!
On November 3rd, 1913, a prisoner named Maggie Martin was sent to New York State prison for women at Auburn. Prisoner 933, as she was known, was actually a writer and reformer Madeline Dotty. Madeline’s experience helped debunked the theories like the women prisoners were irredeemable. She talked about the squalid living conditions as well as the humanity that she experienced while incarcerated.
Carmelo Abbate went bravely where no man went before.
The Vatican is one of the oldest and most powerful organizations in the world. So going against them in a daring undercover operation is all the more remarkable. In 2010, Carmelo Abbate, one of the Italian journalists went undercover as the boyfriend of a man involved in escort services through Rome. In his work, he learned how heavily the escort service in Rome depended on priests for business. Even though Catholic Church tried to dub his expose as “offensive stereotyping”, however, Abbate insists that it is the hypocrisy and double standards need to end.
Anna Erelle and the ISIS
A French journalist wanted to learn why the teachings of ISIS are so attractive to a certain part of the population. So she used social media to establish contact with a French Jehadi named Abu Biel by posing as a 20-year-old girl named Melodie. Their online relationship advanced from Skyping to eventually Melodie agreeing to run away from her home and joining him as one of his wives in Syria. She was given elaborate instructions to travel from Amsterdam to Istanbul before heading to the border city in Turkey. She followed with the plan as far as Amsterdam before she and her editors decided it was no longer worth the risk. Her expose revealed many tactics used by ISIS for recruitment. Her profile was immediately bombarded with threats and she had to leave her apartment and stop using her real name. Now she only goes with the name Anna Erelle and does not use the same phone number for a long time. There is a fatwa issued against her by Biel and his fellow Jehadis.