• World History

The Most Daring Moments In Undercover Journalism From Radical Islam to Scientology

Violence. Drugs. Guns. Every day daring investigative journalists put themselves in dangerous situations in hopes of exposing a truth that someone, somewhere doesn't want the world to know.

The bravest undercover journalists find a way in and sometimes, this costs them their life. They expose themselves to the hardships of working immigrant classes or to extreme violence perpetuated by distorted ideologies. Many have undergone severe physical transformations to blend more seamlessly with the groups under investigation.

Stories about journalists undercover show the selfless lengths these heroes go to - often giving up their identities and putting their post-investigation life in danger - in order to stand up for those without voices and to reveal atrocious crimes against humanity. 

  • Antonio Salas Posed As A Radical Islamist To Expose The Underbelly of Jihadist Terrorism

    Photo: Wrongchris / via WIkimedia Commons

    Inspired by the Madrid train bombings in 2004, the Spanish investigative journalist who was known for infiltrating neo-Nazi circles and prostitute-trafficking rings and who goes by the pseudonym Antonio Salas needed "to know what goes through the mind of a person who is capable of killing for an ideology."

    To dupe his way into the seedy underbelly of a jihadist terrorism organization, Salas went to the most extreme lengths, including undergoing circumcision, copying the Quran by hand (and keeping that copy always on him to prove his devotion), and creating an elaborate backstory about his pregnant wife being killed by an Israeli bullet. For five years he dedicated himself to this story and wrote prolifically for radical publications while traveling to jihadist hotbeds. 

    This work paid dividends as he worked his way up the terrorist organizations ladder to gain the full confidence of Carlos the Jackal, a notorious terrorist believed to have killed more than 80 people through his plots.  

    His investigation culminated in his book El Palestino, in which he skillfully outlines the skeletal network of international terrorism supported by his firsthand encounters.

  • Nellie Bly Faked Insanity To Have Herself Committed

    Photo: H. J. Myers / via Wikimedia Commons

    Eager to prove her chops as a legitimate journalist in the 19th century, when she had typically been delegated to writing about domestic issues such as sewing and caring for the home, Elizabeth Cochrane (AKA Nellie Bly) jumped at the chance to expose the harsh realities of insane asylums

    Rumors abounded of mistreatment - including ice baths, harsh labor, and undernourishment - and Cochrane had been assigned to see if they were true. But to get the real scoop, she knew that she'd have to do what no journalist had done to that point: fake insanity in order to be legitimately committed and undergo treatment just as any other inmate. 

    She pretended to be a Cuban immigrant (with a surprisingly hole-filled backstory that perhaps helped her case for insanity, as she didn't even know the name of her alias's hometown). Once committed, she marveled at the cruelty she and fellow inmates were forced to endure. Beatings were rampant, and water-boarding was commonplace. She noticed that nearly all the inmates were immigrants, many of whom knew not a word of English and never had interpreters provided for them (meaning they would never know why they were there or what the f*ck was going on, and that likely they weren't really insane but were guilty only of not knowing English).

    With Ten Days in a Mad House in 1887, Cochrane spearheaded a new movement in journalism known as "stunt journalism" while exposing the horrors forced on those who were thought to be insane. 

  • Tim Lopes Was Savagely Murdered While Investigating Brazilian Gangs

    In a country where corruption scandals crop up almost every other year, Brazilians (chiefly in the notorious slums of the Favela da Grota) relied heavily on the heroic work of Tim Lopes, a fearless investigative journalist whose award-winning work effectively shut down the open-air drug market for more than a month.

    Often equipped with nothing more than a miniature camera, a microphone, and his undeniable street smarts, Lopes had been known to pose as anything from a drug rehab patient to Santa Claus in order to learn all he could about the illicit drug markets and prostitute trafficking. 

    During his efforts to expose the murderous drug gang headed by Maluco, a drug lord believed to be responsible for more than 70 murders, Lopes's cover was blown, leading to his gruesome torture and murder. Police reports claim he had been pistol-whipped, shot in the leg, bound by his hands, beaten with fists and sticks, and finally hacked to bits by a sword-wielding Maluco. 

  • John Howard Griffin Changed His Skin Color To Learn How African Americans Were Treated

    In 1959, a little known white writer from Texas walked into a doctor's office and asked to be made Black. By taking "a medication taken orally, followed by exposure to ultraviolet rays" and shaving his head, John Howard Griffin completed the transition. He then undertook a tour of the Jim Crow-dominated South, traveling from New Orleans to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. 

    The result of his experience was the powerful book Black Like Me, which, despite prolific writings by numerous Black Americans about their experiences, awoke many white Americans to the realities suffered by Black Americans on a daily basis. It discounted the notion that Black Americans were simply being paranoid or oversensitive about trivialities.