Going Undercover Was the Only Way This Crime Reporter Could Get the Truth | #College. | #Students

No question, the doctor was looking at my shirt pocket. Did he see the tiny hole? If he did, that small opening presented a major problem. Did he recognize me?

I was wearing thick glasses instead of my usual contacts. My on-air hair had never looked so disheveled. Even my friends wouldn’t recognize me without my usual television makeup. I was undercover and in disguise. At least I thought so. But the doctor’s wandering eyes were making me nervous.

A source had told us this guy was lying to patients about his history as an obstetrician. He’d been hammered with malpractice suits, and lost, time after time after time. And the state had suspended his license. But state laws at the time didn’t require him to tell that to patients. Back then, to find a doctor’s legal history, a patient would have to search court files, which in some cases were sealed.

We’d asked Massachusetts state officials, “How are potential patients supposed to find out a doctor’s legal record?” And we were told, “Ask the doctor. They’re supposed to tell you.”

But would they? Or would they lie?

There’s a principle called the Hawthorne Effect, the history of which is more lore than reality, but the theory is that simply the act of observing a situation changes it. Any teenager knows one version of that is true: If you fear your mom is watching, your behavior will be markedly different. Here’s the journalism corollary: If a subject knows a reporter is asking the question, they’ll respond with a different answer than they would to someone who isn’t.

The brave and iconic Nellie Bly, working for Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, suspected brutality and violence against the women in the “Women’s Lunatic Asylum” in Blackwell, New York. To get the story—in 1887—she pretended to be insane and got herself admitted. She lived as a mental patient in the asylum’s terrifyingly miserable conditions for ten days, until The World got her out. She then sealed her career and reputation with her shocking expose.


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