Turns out, journalism can be a dangerous occupation. According to Reporters Without Borders, 65 journalists were killed in 2017, with a further 54 held hostage, 326 detained and two missing. Undercover journalism is riskier yet. Infiltrating the worst kinds of lions’ dens in their quest to investigate and expose crime and injustice, journalists are only as safe as their alibi is strong.
Here are three of history’s best and bravest investigative reporters. Two of them lived to tell the tale.
TIM LOPES: ANTI-NARCO CRUSADER
Brazilian investigative journalist Tim Lopes (pictured above) dedicated his life to reporting on social inequality, injustice and violence perpetrated against Rio de Janeiro’s most marginalised people, the favela-dwellers. Having grown up in a favela himself, Lopes’ unique combo of street smarts and razor-sharp journalistic instincts saw him go undercover many times in his crusade to raise awareness of the impossible hardships faced by Rio’s underclass. Above all, he sought to expose the drug gangs who controlled the favelas with brazen impunity, trafficking their wares, terrorising residents and exploiting women and children while the city’s police did a big fat nada. Tragically, while investigating child prostitution in the Vila Cruzeiro favela in 2002, Lopes’ cover was blown when a couple of gang-members spotted his hidden camera. His brutally tortured remains were found nine days later.
NELLIE BLY: BEHIND ASYLUM BARS
Fearless, feisty and unstoppable, 19th-century American reporter Nellie Bly not only challenged the ingrained sexism of her profession, she practically invented investigative journalism as we know it. In 1887, she feigned insanity so she’d be committed to the notorious women’s lunatic asylum at Blackwell’s Island. After ten days inside this hellhole (staffed by prisoners from a nearby penitentiary, no less) she had all the ammunition she needed to write a six-part tell-all on the asylum’s shocking conditions for New York World. Her exposé caused such a stir, it prompted a grand jury and sweeping improvements at Blackwell’s Island. (Grab a copy of Smith Journal Volume 27 to learn more about Nellie Bly’s heroic exploits – you won't believe what she got up to next.)
MARY BLEITH AND THE SMOKING BEAGLES
When Mary Bleith’s investigation ‘The Smoking Beagles’ hit the front page of Manchester paper The People in 1975, it caused mass outrage. Bleith spent seven days posing as an assistant in the Dog Toxicity Unit of an animal-testing laboratory, where she witnessed horrifying experiments being conducted to test a new, supposedly safe, cigarette. Describing “dogs trussed in fabric slings like strait-jackets” being forced to “puff away relentlessly” through “grotesque smoking masks,” her story’s impact was magnified by a (now-iconic) photo she snapped with a spy camera, showing a row of miserable beagles forcibly restrained in medieval-looking smoking contraptions. Though this was Bleith’s most famous exposé, she went undercover regularly during her career, including as a nurse to investigate elder abuse in psychiatric institutions.