One way to a good end

Reporter cuts corners to test capital drug program

Deception exposed abuses; would no other methods achieve the same results?

By Patrick Boyle

Patrick Boyle is a Metro reporter for The Washington (DC) Times.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 8 (November 1989), p. 2.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

The supervisor in the drug clinic handed me a small plastic cup and led me to the bathroom with three other men. My mission: fill the cup with urine, so a city lab could test it to determine if I was using drugs.

But unlike the other clients at the clinic, I was not on probation or parole. I was a reporter on assignment. And I had something hidden in my underwear – a small hand lotion tube filled with apple juice. Standing at a toilet, I surreptitiously filled the plastic cup with the juice. The lab tested it as urine and reported that it was drug-free.

That’s one of the methods I used to expose flaws in Washington’s system for detecting drug use among people on probation and parole. I went into the clinic posing as a client and came out with a story that forced changes in how urine samples are collected.

The story also raised questions about ethics because I misrepresented myself to get it. Is it ethical to pretend to be someone other than a reporter in order to get the truth?

Going undercover is indeed an extreme tactic to be used only in exceptional circumstances. But sometimes it’s the best and only way to find the truth. This was the first time for me, and it may be the last.

The clinic I investigated tests 170 probationers and parolees each day, so that judges can see if they are adhering to conditions of their freedom.

But last spring a probation officer complained to me that the tests weren’t legitimate. He had heard that workers at the clinic didn’t ask for identification from clients, which allowed the clients to send friends to take the tests for them. He had heard that supervisors didn’t watch carefully when the clients were supposed to urinate into the cups; some men purportedly filled the cups with clean urine or other liquids hidden in their pants.

I talked to probation officers, judges, and people in the city drug agency. They either said the testing system was airtight or had heard rumors about cheating. No one really knew how secure the system was. I set out to interview people on probation, but realized that wouldn’t be good enough. I might get a few tales about how clients allegedly cheat on urine tests, but I could not document the extent of the problem or be sure the tales were true. We needed to find out definitively how easy it was to fool the testing system.

The best way, I decided, was to test the system myself. I took the idea to the metro editor and assistant metro editor of The Washington Times, who agreed that the only way to verify complaints about lax procedures at the clinic was to take the tests. I was not to offer bribes to clinic workers or try talking them into letting me cheat.

They did not expect me to get away with my efforts to fool the system. My metro editor bet me dinner that I could not hand in apple juice as a urine sample.

A source got me several copies of the forms that the courts use to refer people for the tests; these served as tickets into the clinic. Another reporter and I completed the forms with fictitious names and case numbers, then visited the clinic a total of five times in one month this summer.

On each of our first visits, we followed orders and urinated into the cups. No one asked for identification to prove that we were the persons whose names were on the forms. On each of the next three visits, I went in with the hand lotion tube in my pants. Once it was filled with urine from home, once with apple juice, and once with urine I had bought from a man in the bathroom of a nearby McDonald’s. With a clinic supervisor standing a few feet away, I would stand at a toilet or urinal, slip the tube out through my fly and squeeze the liquid into the cup.

Officials at the city drug agency and probation division were shocked when I told them how I had circumvented the tests. One official said my study was unethical because I had falsified government documents (the court forms) and lied to clinic workers by posing as someone on probation.

That, I said, was the only way to get an accurate story. Yes, I could have gathered quotes from clients (who would want to remain anonymous) about how they cheat on the tests, then called officials for quotes about how the system guards against cheats. The resulting story would have left me and the readers with little idea of what the truth was.

Misrepresentation can indeed hurt our credibility. But in this case the undercover work, which was explained in the article, bolstered the story’s credibility. Readers realized that I knew firsthand what I was writing about.

The city public health commissioner thanked me for the story, saying it uncovered problems that otherwise would have gone undetected.

Now clients are asked for ID at the clinic. Procedures were changed so that supervisors actually see clients fill the cups. Mirrors were installed in the bathroom to make cheating more difficult.

So readers got the truth and serious problems in a taxpayer-funded program were corrected. That’s a lot better than doing nothing.