Why Go Undercover? This NY Times Article Makes the Case

I’ve been asked dozens of times whether the companies I worked for during the book knew my real agenda. I usually laugh and say, “Of course not.”

No employer–or at least none of the employers in the industries I was exploring–was going to agree to let an unsupervised journalist hang around. There’s a reason companies have public relations departments, and that reason is to control their message. Since I didn’t want to be controlled, and I certainly didn’t want to create more work for the PR departments, I figured it was best on both of our ends to just keep my project quiet.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw this description for a recent article in the New York Times: “A reporter takes on a holiday challenge: what it’s like to be one worker in the army it takes to run a Wal-Mart store in New Jersey.”

Now, I’ve heard that the Times has a policy forbidding its journalists from going undercover for stories. So I read on, intrigued. Indeed, I learned that for some reason Wal-Mart had agreed to allow a journalist to work at a store in New Jersey. From the piece:

Once taciturn, the company has become more open in recent years, engaging with its critics and pulling back the curtain on certain aspects of its operations. The company said I was the first reporter to spend a day in a Wal-Mart store without supervision by its communications executives.

I won’t go into the rest of the article, which you can read here, except to say that it provides another great argument for going undercover. The reporter spent the day learning what it’s like to be a “worker” at Wal-Mart, then describes her day: “Most of my time, though, was spent with Wal-Mart supervisors and assistant managers.”

I’ve never worked at Wal-Mart, but I was an employee in the electronics section of K-Mart for a spell. I can tell you that the only day I spent “most of my time” with supervisors or assistant managers was the day I was fired for forgetting to wear the trademark red vest one too many times.

To summarize, the reporter’s day is spent listening to the manager quote John Wooden on leadership, marvel at the complicated inventory system, and learn virtually nothing about the actual workers of Wal-Mart. One of the only observations that does delve into the realities of the work– “there is still a lot of monotonous physical labor happening inside its stores”–is followed by a quote from a Wal-Mart spokesperson reminding the reporter to wear comfortable shoes.

What I didn’t learn from the article is precisely what I was promised: “What it’s like to be one worker in the army it takes to run a Wal-Mart store.”

But after reading the piece, I do have to admit that there might have been a chance that, had I identified myself as a reporter at the beginning, I could have convinced a company to allow me to “work” for them in the way that this reporter “worked” for Wal-Mart. Maybe Pilgrim’s Pride would have taken me for a tour of the plant, fed me inspiring quotes on leadership, and even allowed me to occasionally say hello to a worker, who no doubt knew I was a reporter and had already received their instructions about presenting a cheery visage.

Either way, I’m glad I went undercover.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Why Go Undercover? This NY Times Article Makes the Case

  1. ralph hietala

    The walmart story in the times was a lot of fluff.
    I wonder if the embedded news reporters portray an accurate description of the war.

    • Roberta Diephouse

      I agree with Ralph, this article is a lot of fluff. Having done research into Walmart and its labor practices, this piece was just PR for them. The way you can get to the nitty gritty is by going undercover as you did.

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