Mr. Patterson: Good morning everyone. I’m Tom Patterson, the interim director of the Shorenstein Center, and this is the follow-up to last evening’s Goldsmith Awards program.
I love this part of the event where we have the finalists for the Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Award take us behind the story, how they came to it, and some of the difficulties they faced. And then, we can all have a conversation about these stories and investigative reporting generally.
I’d again like to thank, as I did last night, the Greenfield Foundation, which underwrites the Goldsmith Awards. They’ve supported it through its 24 years unfailingly, and it wouldn’t be the type of program that it is without that marvelous, marvelous family.
So, we’re going to start with Robin McDowell, who was part of the team that won the Goldsmith Investigative Reporting Award last night from The Associated Press for their terrific story “Seafood from Slaves,” which documents the extensive use of slave labor in the harvesting of seafood in an area of Southeast Asia, that resulted in the freeing of more than 2,000 enslaved fishermen, as well as arrests, legislation action, and the like, and Robin is representing that team of four.
Twenty years in Southeast Asia, covering virtually every country in that region. Not only looking into abuses of this kind, but also the difficulties of, for instance, Myanmar, the transition from military rule to civilian rule, covering the tsunami. Kind of the whole range of things in that region of the world. Robin? Please, give us some insights on “Seafood from Slaves.”
Ms. McDowell: Well, I guess, as part of living in that region for such a long time, we had heard stories, and seen stories for a long time about these fishermen who had gone and basically been abused at sea, and it was so common to hear these stories that it was something we almost didn’t want to look into because it’s like looking into the Mafia or something.
Everyone knows this. It’s been written about, but at a certain point, we decided, okay, this is such a common story and everyone in Southeast Asia knows about it. Why is there no outrage?
So, that’s pretty much where we started. We, ourselves, felt like if we didn’t at least look into it and try to make the rest of the world care, then we weren’t doing our jobs as journalists.
My colleague Margie Mason said, “Well, what if we link it to the American dinner table?” That seemed like a really easy, obvious way to do it, but as soon as we started talking to the NGOs, and labor rights groups, and people that had been working with these fishermen for years, and years, and years, and years, they basically just said that it’s really almost impossible.
Everybody knows that this is probably being linked to the U.S., but because all the documents are falsified, there’s transshipment at sea – so even if you found someone who is on a slave ship, then that fish gets put onto a refrigerated cargo ship at sea. That gets mixed with clean fish, then it goes to the port and then it goes to the market, and that fish gets auctioned off in bits and pieces.
It’s really hard to find one fish and say, “Okay, that fish is actually…” So, it was kind of a slow process of just keep trying, keep trying. I don’t know how much more you want me to go into this, but in the end, we found an American company that said there was a specific species of fish that, while they pretty much felt they controlled the product that was ending up in America, they were really concerned about this one particular species because the Thai fishing fleets, which were notorious for their use of slave labor, had control of the waters where the fish was, the migratory pattern of that fish.
Our goal at that point was: let’s find someone who is catching that fish and then we can probably make the link. That kind of fell to the wayside when we found the island, except that I spent the first four days interviewing guys who had really been horrifically abused – and my main question was, “Did you catch this fish?”
Ms. McDowell: At a certain point we realized they were catching pretty much every fish and eventually we were able to track it through satellite to Thailand and then through customs records to America.
Mr. Patterson: Robin, thank you.
Another one of the finalists last night was The Guardian US for “The Counted.” After the killing at Ferguson, it became clear that coming by data, information on police killings was very difficult. That the official records were spotty, and there was not, in fact, a good record on these killings. The Guardian began to put the data together and created an enormous database to document these killings, the circumstances of them, and that reporting, along with similar reporting by The Washington Post, prompted the FBI and the Justice Department to change the way that they’re collecting data in this important area.
Representing The Guardian team is Jon Swaine, who joined The Guardian two years ago; before that, seven years with The Daily Telegraph, mostly in the U.S. reporting from New York and Washington. Jon?
Mr. Swaine: Our project was conceived after Ferguson, and I arrived in Ferguson a couple of days after Michael Brown’s death, and reported there through the weeks of unrest and demonstrations.
Our editor at the time, Katharine Viner – she is now the editor in chief of The Guardian – was just struck by this fact that there was no comprehensive record of these deaths and it seemed extraordinary that there was not, and she said, “If the government was not going to do this, then we should,” and, you know, it was a pretty daunting task. We didn’t really think we could do it, but we set off at the start of 2015 recording those deaths and the project became something much, much bigger.
The problem was wider than there just not being a database. The claims by protestors that police were racially biased in their use of force just couldn’t be tested against any statistics.
There was no comparison available between death rates and between different cities and states and counties, and really this, this live debate that was going on, which seemed to be of great national importance, was being restricted to this sort of speculation, and wild claims from either side.
So, we started this project. We called it “The Counted,” and by the end of the year, we felt that we had given readers an accurate rate of deaths caused by law enforcement in the U.S. We told stories of people who died in troubling circumstances, and of the officers who killed them, and we presented an analysis explaining trends in the data on who was killed, how they were killed and why.
By the end of the year, we had a tally of more than 1,100, which was about two and a half times greater than the 2014 total presented by the FBI’s voluntary reporting program, which was their best record. FBI Director James Comey, in October, in light of these findings, said that it was unacceptable that we and The Washington Post had better data than government officials and, you know, we agreed.
He and his senior staff announced by the end of the year that they would overhaul their system, that they would begin counting more than just shooting deaths as they had been. Separately, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, which is a little-known division of the Department of Justice, said that they would restart a second, separate program which had been shuttered in the months before Michael Brown’s death, which would draw on our data and The Washington Post‘s data and other public data, and follow our methodology, which differed so drastically from what the government was doing before.
The FBI system as it had been was voluntary. It relied on every department in the country, if they chose, [to] report deaths caused by their officers that year, and many didn’t. Many said that they didn’t have the capacity to record these things. Many chose not to.
Instead, we had a proactive system. We found cases as they cropped up in local media. We searched records, thousands of public records. We made calls to coroners and to police departments, and found these deaths ourselves, and this new restarted program in the Department of Justice is going to follow that methodology.
They’re going to proactively contact these regional authorities to confirm deaths that they, themselves, have spotted, rather than rely on this voluntary system which just wasn’t working. And beyond the headline finding of 1,100 deaths, we produced a series of investigative articles to go with the projects, and analyzing the findings, and there were pretty troubling trends to come out of the data.
There were 30 people, by the time we reported it, who had been killed, shot dead in moving cars despite contemporary policing theory, in the Department of Justice, and also some experts saying, that’s just not what you do. There is no need to shoot into a moving car. If you’re a police officer, you can get out of the way. It’s not worth shooting a burglar or a car thief.
Seven killings, at the time we reported, had officially been ruled suicides despite actually having been shootings by officers, and this is obviously a very contentious area, but it wasn’t really being explored properly. And 48 people died after they had been shot with tasers or similar electric shock weapons, despite the manufacturers’ insisting that it’s almost impossible to die after a shock from these weapons.
What we found was all these trends were emerging from this data that we collected that just hadn’t been collected before and we thought, and I think a lot of experts agreed, that all these issues around the abuse of lethal force by police were worthy of much more examination than had been given before, as well as these trends. There were stark racial disparities in our data.
We found by the end of the year that young black men were killed in 2015 at nine times the rate, once you adjust for population size of other Americans. African Americans who were killed were twice as likely as white people in the database, to have been unarmed.
Each database entry, in our system, presents a crucial context, however, on whether the person killed was armed and what threat they posed. We decided this needed to be outlined to readers – that the challenges faced by police are considerable.
While one in five people in the database was unarmed, and obviously those stories gather more headlines, another one in five had fired shots of their own at officers. And while six innocent bystanders were killed, eight police officers were killed by people who were subsequently killed by the officer’s colleagues.
Towards the end of the year, we identified Kern County, California as the county in America with the highest rate of killings by law enforcement, and we produced a five-part series examining the criminal justice system there.
In another examination of how killings by police were being investigated, we found that 87.5 percent of inquiries exonerating officers were being tainted by conflicts of interest. They were being investigated by prosecutors who usually work with the officers involved, and in producing that article, we persuaded the district attorney, in Omaha, Nebraska, to propose opening his grand jury systems to the public.
So really, through this project, which lasted all year and has continued into 2016, we just wanted to provide solid information, facts and proper findings to a debate that was heated and that was ongoing and that had reached the top of American policymaking. And as I said, the FBI and the Department of Justice has promised to implement the reforms. While we’re waiting for those, we’re going to continue to hold them to account.
Mr. Patterson: John, thank you.
InsideClimate News was a finalist for its series “Exxon: The Road Not Taken.” They report that Exxon, with its internal scientific studies, found evidence confirming or supporting the climate change thesis, but what it did publicly was quite different from its advertising campaigns and funding of other organizations, helping to create doubt about climate change.
Representing the InsideClimate News team will be Lisa Song, who’s been with that organization for five years. She reports on climate change, environmental health, natural gas drilling, and she was part of the team that won the Pulitzer in 2013 for work in this area. Lisa?
Ms. Song: Okay, so this story idea came about at the beginning of 2015, and we were at a staff retreat when our publisher, David Sassoon, was very excited and decided to pitch us a story idea, and his idea was to look at oil companies and to see if any of them had known about climate change science before they started funding various efforts to undermine the certainty of that science.
He wanted us to see what oil companies had known about climate science and when did they know it, and the way he got the idea to do this was back in 2014, when he had been to a conference where Daniel Ellsberg was a speaker, and Ellsberg was encouraging the journalists in the room to look for whistleblowers instead of waiting for whistleblowers to come to us. By the time David pitched this idea to us, we thought it was impossible. We had no idea where to start.
We didn’t have deep connections in the oil industry, but we sort of went out there, and tried to see what we could find and eventually, we figured out that Exxon was the best place to start.
My colleague, David Hasemyer, had found a retired federal scientist. He said that the federal government had worked with Exxon in the early 1980s on climate change research, and this was pretty puzzling to us because the general public didn’t understand, or had even heard about climate change until the late 1980s. So if Exxon had been tracking the science 10 years earlier, then that was very significant.
Then Neela Banerjee found a document showing that an Exxon scientist had appeared at a conference of AAAS, which is the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1979, and that was a meeting about climate science, and the point of the meeting was to get top experts together and try to understand the current state of climate research. And this Exxon scientist, Henry Shaw, was the only representative from the industry. Everyone else was from a university or the government.
So, with those two clues, we started seeing what we could find about Exxon in those years, and it was a lot of shoe leather reporting. Neela, especially, was just calling people, driving around, meeting people at their homes. She tracked down a lot of former Exxon employees from that time. Many of them had passed away, but there were still some who were alive and willing to talk.
Eventually, she found the key documents. We got thousands of pages of internal Exxon memos and letters from about 1976 or so, through 1986, and those documents showed that in the late ’70s and mid-80s, Exxon had a really good in-house climate research program.
They started out by putting sensors on one of their super tankers so they could measure CO2 in the oceans and in the air as the super tanker was going around the world. Then after awhile, they even partnered with Columbia University on that project. They really wanted to do good science and they were working with some of the top experts of the time.
Eventually, they cut the funding for that research and then they started doing their own climate modeling, which was a lot cheaper. And they, again, recruited scientists from academia. They recruited a scientist from Harvard and several from New York University, and they were doing computer modeling, and they got the same results as the scientific consensus at the time.
So, while independent scientists were predicting that doubling CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to a one to three degree warming, Exxon’s own research showed the exact same result. And I thought, one of the most interesting memos that we saw, was a letter from their manager around that time saying that our research shows the same results as that of independent scientists, but if we publish our results in the peer reviewed literature, we might get some bad media attention because everyone knows that fossil fuels are contributing to this problem, and our core business is fossil fuels. But then he told his scientists that we have to publish anyway because scientific integrity and honesty is very important. This is what the Exxon research team was like back then.
They were doing quite good research, and then by the mid-1980s, again, they cut funding. A lot of the people left, and by 1989, the company had turned around and was funding efforts to undermine the certainty of the science, so they started out one way and then turned around and did something totally different.
Mr. Patterson: Lisa, thank you.
Another finalist was “Beware the Fine Print,” a New York Times series that looks at the fine print in consumer and employee contracts that seriously disadvantage those who sign those contracts, forcing them into arbitration, often loaded arbitration, and also prevents class action suits. That particular series has led to legislation being introduced that will stop some of these practices.
Representing the New York Times team is Jessica Silver-Greenberg, who is a reporter at the Times who covers banking and consumer finance. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her series on debt collectors, and the Loeb finalist in 2014 for a series on how the nation’s largest banks prey on older Americans. Jessica?
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: So, our story started when my colleague, Michael Corkery, and I were working on a story about how military members, whose homes and cars had been illegally seized by banks, were finding when they went to try to do anything about it, when they went to sue under this key federal law, they were being blocked from court and sent to this system, which at the time, we had no idea about. This thing called arbitration seemed harmless enough. Seemed a little boring in fact. You say that you want to do a series on arbitration and people literally kind of go to sleep in front of you.
We started trying to look at what this private system was, what this alternative to court was, and at the beginning, it was extremely challenging just to figure out what happened in arbitration, in part because the system is designed to be incredibly secretive. That’s one of its advantages for the companies who bring cases there. Nothing that they do, or that happens there ever makes it out to the public. Even if it’s a case of wrongful death – which we found cases that went to arbitration over wrongful death, people dying in nursing homes over neglect, or actually, someone who was murdered in a nursing home by her 98 year old roommate – even those cases don’t make it out.
So Michael and I started looking around, trying to figure out what happened in arbitration. By doing a lot of legal research to see who was trying to appeal decisions that had happened in arbitration, we started to get a glimpse of the nature of the cases that went there, and what we found initially was really shocking to us.
There were things like NFL cheerleaders who were bringing labor cases against the NFL for unfair working conditions, whose case in arbitration was going to be heard by the commissioner of the NFL.
We heard of plaintiffs who brought cases who lost, and were told to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the other side’s legal fees for things like private plane travel and hotels.
But then, there was a story that developed simultaneously. It wasn’t enough to just do an anecdotal look at arbitration and these horror stories. We wanted to see how people fared in comparison to court and so because there are not really public arbitration records, we went to all the arbitration providers and asked them for the data which, of course, they wouldn’t give us.
That took a lot of calls. Someone would be like, “We’ll get that to you right away,” and then I would get a telephone number that wasn’t their legal counsel at all. One person sent me to – I think it was a fishing company to get the data.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: But we eventually got to what amounted to about 25,000 arbitration records. We had no idea what to do with them at that point, and that’s when my other colleague, Rob Gebeloff, stepped in and started analyzing how many people went to arbitration against various companies, and that’s when a second story started developing.
So, it wasn’t just about what happened in arbitration. It was also about the nature of certain claims weren’t going to arbitration at all. We started looking, say, at Sprint, a company that has 65 million customers and in four years, only four people went to arbitration against Sprint. I mean, we thought that there have got to be more people that have had problems with Sprint than just four people.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: That’s when we started realizing that arbitration, while it was a system that was very slanted against plaintiffs, was almost beside the point.
Arbitration clauses, which are the fine print that all of you, if you pulled out your credit cards right now, would have a clause that says that the company can elect to take you to arbitration instead of court. So you’ve signed away, without even realizing it, your constitutional right to a civil trial. But in that clause, there is an even more powerful thing. It’s a vehicle, the clause says that you cannot file a class action lawsuit. And for any of you that have gotten in the mail that coupon that says that you’ve been enrolled in a class action lawsuit – you have $20 for that, because of your checking account or something – you might not realize what the real power of eliminating your ability to file a class action lawsuit is. But all the corporations that put those clauses in there – what they realized, what a team of corporate lawyers realized was, by banning class actions, you pretty much disable lawsuits in general because most people won’t go to court over a $10 fee, or a predatory practice. They just will abandon their case altogether. So once you get rid of class actions, you pretty much disable all threats.
What we saw was, and what we had to go about trying to figure out was how corporate America had basically written themselves out of the legal system altogether, and they had done it with these seemingly innocuous clauses that are in, as I said, everyone’s wallet.
We basically had to go to law school to try to figure it out. I mean, my colleagues and I puzzled about it for days and weeks because what we started to realize was that, without really anyone noticing, this group of lawyers working for credit card companies had engineered one of what really we think amounted to one of the most audacious coups in corporate America, which was they wrote themselves out of the legal system, and they did it in such a complex, legalistic way that anyone who had tried to figure out what they did had been dissuaded from going into it at all, because it was not drama on the high seas.
The coup that they did didn’t happen on a battlefield. It happened in a bunch of board rooms, starting on Park Avenue and then in Washington, D.C.. We then set about trying to get people to tell us on the record, how they had done it, and how they, basically, in trying to exempt themselves from the court system, had gone all the way to the Supreme Court, and gotten the blessing of the Supreme Court in 2011, and then again in 2013, and almost no one noticed. So we set about trying to do that. That’s, that’s it. Yeah.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: I mean, there is a lot more, but you can ask me questions later.
Mr. Patterson: Jessica, thank you. Another finalist was “Failure Factories,” Tampa Bay Times, which discovered that Pinellas County, Florida had starved its black schools of resources to the point where they were awash in violence and academic failure. That reporting led to substantial changes in the handling of those schools in that county: additional resources, special oversight, major change.
Representing that team will be Michael LaForgia, who is a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, part of their investigative reporting team. In 2014, he was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. Michael?
Mr. LaForgia: So, our story really arose from questions that came out of the education beat and principally, questions that were surfaced by my wife, who is the education reporter at the newspaper.
She was going over standardized test scores, and year over year since 2012 when we started at the paper, realized that African American kids, in our county, Pinellas County, were doing worse at reading and math than African American kids in any other county in Florida.
She had covered schools in four other school districts and had never seen anything like the rates of failure that were happening there in Pinellas County, and it’s a large, relatively affluent county. The crime rate is about average, the rates of poverty, single parent homes, reliance on food stamps, it’s about the middle of the road when it comes to Florida counties, so there was no good explanation for why this was happening.
It made us want to dig in, as a team, into the story with the other educational reporter, and I’ve got to tell you, if you’ve never teamed up with your husband or wife on an intense 18-month long reporting project, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.
Mr. LaForgia: It’s not to be missed.
Mr. LaForgia: We’re still married.
Mr. LaForgia: One of the things that made what we did a little different from how other people had approached this story in the past was that we focused, not on the phenomenon itself, but on the policy decisions that led to the phenomenon and on the people who made those decisions.
There was a vote, shortly after federal oversight that had stemmed from a desegregation lawsuit dating to the ‘60s, expired. There was a moment when the school district and the school board had to decide how they were going to assign students to school – how do they dictate the enrollment patterns, and previously of course, there had been racial quotas and bussing.
They had a decision to make. They could continue doing the system of choice and make an effort to keep these schools integrated, or they could revert to a neighborhood schools model, which would amount to de facto re-segregation. So they opted for that and that’s where we decided to begin our story, at that moment, in 2007.
Then we traced the different decisions and policy failures that the school board made over the subsequent years.
Some of the challenges there…I mean, it’s a big, broad topic. We went from school zoning and the intricacies of analyzing student test score data, to discipline, rates of suspensions for African American kids versus non-African American kids, to teacher personnel records.
We, at one point, pulled from the state of Florida, the results of every single teacher certification exam in the state, so we knew how many times the teachers in our schools had failed the basic teaching test, and we were able to use that as one measure of the quality of teachers that the kids were getting in these schools.
We also looked at the data that was generated as a result of assignment to special programs, like magnets and some of the most desirable schools in the county, and we found that African American kids were basically being shut out of the best schools in our county.
As a result of our reporting, three of the five schools have been singled out to be turned into magnet programs. The U.S. Secretary of Education at the time, Arne Duncan, came down and accused the school board of educational malpractice. They’ve hired an administrator and put him in charge of the five schools that we focused on in an effort to turn them around and there is a state Department of Education investigation into their use of federal funds and whether they were spending the money properly or using it to supplant local money that they should have been spending. So, that’s about it.
Mr. Patterson: Good. Thank you.
The last finalist is The Washington Post’s “Fatal Shooting by Police.” The Ferguson shooting, as it did with The Guardian, triggered the Post into action pretty much on the same mission, and that was to tabulate these killings.
The one difference with the Post was that they made an effort to capture them in real time, so the data would be as accurate and complete as possible. The reporting of the two news organizations, of course, prompted the FBI and the Justice Department to alter the way that they’re collecting this data.
Kimberly Kindy, from The Washington Post, will talk for that team. She’s a national investigative reporter for the Post. She has been there since 2008. We have one of the billionaire owners of the newspapers here in Boston, John Henry. Kimberly Kindy has worked in newspapers associated with two of them. One is the Post, obviously, with Jeff Bezos, but before she was at the Post, she was at The Orange County Register, Aaron Kushner had a part in that newspaper. Kimberly?
Ms. Kindy: Thank you. Well, by now you know what our project was about, and what the results were as a result of us doing it, so I think what I’ll do is cut out some of what I was going to say and just skip right to how we did it and what some of the challenges were.
As was mentioned, one of the things that we wanted to do was do it in real time – I should start with what the biggest challenge was.
No one had ever done this before, so it wasn’t as if we could look around the newsroom, or look to some other newspaper, and say, “Oh, they kind of did a project like this; so, we’ll model it after that, and sort of start from that.”
We started with having no notion of how we were going to do this, and with this huge challenge of trying to do it in real time. The way that it really began was our researchers, Julie Tate and Jennifer Jenkins, started searching every single day on websites and other places to try to learn about every fatal police shooting.
Fortunately, we live in an era in which, when an officer shoots and kills somebody, there is usually some sort of media mention. Now, rarely was there a lot of detail there, but what they would do from there was log it, and then go and see if the police department had actually released some additional information.
One of the big challenges here was that things didn’t just come rushing out. There wasn’t all this information that was out there, and so one of the things that they had to do was they had to keep going back because information would get leaked out a little bit at a time. Was the person armed? Sometimes they’d say and sometimes they wouldn’t say, and obviously with Michael Brown and him being unarmed and that being a national outrage to many, many people, that was something that we wanted to know.
Sometimes they would say that they were armed with a gun, and then it turned out sometimes it wasn’t a gun. It was something that looked like a gun, a replica gun, a toy gun.
Those researchers were continuously going back and checking the record, and seeing what new things were coming out. At the same time, on average, three new shootings were happening a day.
So, imagine this. You’re building a database, constantly going back and trying to back fill it. At the same time, things are marching forward and you’re like, holy crud. We didn’t know this because the FBI wasn’t doing it. There is really an average of three fatal shootings a day?
So, while they’re doing this, the reporters are taking a look at what they’re tracking, and ultimately they tracked more than a dozen details, comprehensively, about every single fatal police shooting, but as we would go along, one month in, two months in, three months in, Julie reminded me last night, or this morning, it’s all a blur –
Ms. Kindy: – that we would see things like, oh, you know what? It looks like a lot of mentally ill people are dying, and then we’d be like, you know, we really should be tracking that.
And so by killing 300, when we finally are like, oh, you know, we really should be tracking that in a comprehensive manner, they would have to go back and check and see, with each of those old cases, whether or not the person was mentally ill, and so they did this for every single thing that we thought should be a major finding. So that was one of the greatest challenges doing that. Overcoming the obstacle that investigative reporters tend to try to do things comprehensively – you file a FOIA, and you bug people, and then in year 2020, when you’ve got all the information, you can tell people what happened in 2015.
The minute that we decided that wasn’t going to cut it, all of these challenges that I just presented to you were what we were wrestling with on a daily basis, and it was ugly and messy, and we had to constantly realize that we were needing to evaluate and reevaluate things.
When police officers would say that this person was driving a car and they tried to kill the officer with it, were they armed? Were they armed with a car, or were they not armed? These sort of very complicated things that you need to wrestle with and understand and tackle so that you can have a data set that is really reliable. Something where for every single killing, you’re tracking things in exactly the same way, in a way in which police can challenge you and it can hold up. The ACLU can challenge you, and it can hold up.
These were the things that, by the end of the year, we were exhausted, but we felt like we had really done our job, and it produced some really great things. We’ve talked about the FBI, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics finally stepping up and saying, “This is embarrassing. You and The Guardian are doing a better job than us,” and then finally coming around and deciding that they were going to do it too, which is fantastic. And it was fantastic last month when police chiefs met at a national conference, and pointed to the Post‘s work, and said, “This is valuable. We need to know this information. We need to know how these incidents begin. We need to know how often people are armed and what they’re armed with, and we need to take a deep look at why things are going sideways. We need to take a deep look at our training. Which of these are preventable?”
Thankfully, they saw something that we were seeing, which is that this is not only dangerous, a lack of proper training, a lack of handling some of these situations properly – it’s not just dangerous for civilians, it’s dangerous for police.
When you chase a guy down a dark alley by yourself, and you have no idea what they even did, they just ran away from you, you’re endangering yourself, and not just that person, who you might meet face to face in a dark corner. And then you maybe think you see a gun, and you don’t, which was an actual case where someone was shot. He was unarmed, and the officer just got face to face with the person by himself in a dark alley and it happens a lot.
So, anyway, quickly some of our findings that prompted change. We found that a quarter of the people who were shot and killed were mentally ill. We found that most of the departments that shot and killed somebody who was mentally ill were not using state of the art training that could help them de-escalate those situations and bring people in safely.
A quarter of the suspects were fleeing in a car or they were running. Sometimes they were shot in the back. Sometimes officers were shooting into moving cars turning them into multi-ton metal missiles, unarmed, shooting into traffic.
We found that one in 10 people were unarmed, and of course we wanted to find out and get a realistic idea of what it looked like. Michael Brown was unarmed. Every media account that really got a lot of attention, people were unarmed. How often were people really unarmed?
Well, most of the time they were armed, but we also wanted to take a deep look at what the unarmed population looked like, and by adjusting for population, unarmed, black men were seven times more likely to be shot than unarmed white men. But we wanted to make sure that we were very balanced, and that we looked at, honestly, the dangers that officers face. And we found that a majority of the time officers, at the time in which they pulled the trigger, were under attack.
It’s a dangerous job, and we wanted to make sure that we were really fair, and we got the facts in front of people, and I think that’s part of why the FBI has come around, and police chiefs have come around. They understand that they’re going to have a better public discourse and better training if they realistically can explain to people the dangers, and separate out the shootings that are justified from the ones that are unjustified and change things.
The last thing that I’d like to say is that we are going to continue to build our database in the next year. We’ll continue to have growing pains because we’re talking about how to expand the data set so we can tell deeper stories, and continue to shed more and more light on when things are going sideways, and why they’re going sideways. Looking forward to rolling out some more stories on that in this coming year.
Mr. Patterson: Kimberly, thank you. As I mentioned at the start, this is the 24th year of The Goldsmith Awards program. I think this is the first time ever that we’ve had two finalists with such similar reporting projects as The Washington Post and The Guardian, and also I can tell you that, when the judges were looking at all of the submissions for the Goldsmith Award, there were a number of other submissions that were triggered by what happened in Ferguson, but having these two together, I think we’d be a little remiss if we didn’t ask each of you, when did you find out about the other news organization’s program?
Mr. Patterson: Did that lead you to speed things up, or did that lead you to make some adjustments in the way you were collecting your data?
Mr. Swaine: While we were compiling our database, we heard that The Washington Post was doing something similar. We didn’t know if it was going to be similarly national, or perhaps regional, or if it was going to be like us, shootings and other deaths, or just shootings. We didn’t coordinate. I think quite a lot of people ask me if this was sort of a joint enterprise, but actually it just coincided really.
Mr. Patterson: Any changes? Any speeding up?
Ms. Kindy: A little speeding up.
Ms. Kindy: We published our first story off the data before they did, but they pushed out their database before we did. So I think that we were kind of neck and neck in terms of our pursuits, and it only helped the cause that The Guardian was on this too.
You know, you can maybe dismiss one media organization, but when two take something like this on, and they both prove that in some measure this is doable, it’s harder, I think, for authorities to look the other way, and so I feel like it was fantastic that we both did something.
We both did things slightly differently. I don’t think that we changed anything we did. The only thing that I would note, though, was that we built a separate database that, again, was triggered by a question in Ferguson. One of the questions that kept coming up, of course, was how often does this happen, and what do these situations really look like. That led us to build basically very similar data sets, but another question that came up was, “What does it take for an officer to be criminally charged when they fatally shoot somebody?”
More and more we’re seeing these videos surface where people feel like they’re looking at a shooting that’s unjustified, so we decided to build a database looking at that too and look back on officers who had been criminally charged going back a decade, and at the very end of the year, going back, looking at that database, it was really interesting to see a difference post-Ferguson, and what is happening with officers being criminally charged.
Because we built that database in the beginning of the year, we knew that on average it was only five officers. If last year is to be any standard, 900 plus people are being shot and killed every year. So, five officers on average, are criminally charged over the past decade. By the end of the year, when we look back at 2015, compared to the prior nine years in the decade, it was 18 officers that were charged last year.
So, we’re seeing a real change in terms of prosecutors feeling more pressure to really look at these cases, and try to hold officers accountable, and we’re seeing video more and more play a huge role in challenging and providing an alternative narrative to what the officers say, and that changed in that dynamic a little bit too.
Mr. Swaine: Just to add to that, I think Kimberly is right. That’s obviously so important to keep track of what’s happening with these cases, and one thing our database does, which is slightly different, is it lists the status of [each] case, whether it’s under investigation, whether there has been an indictment, whether the officer has been reprimanded by his or her department, and that actually proved [to be], surprisingly, one of the most difficult things to keep track of because, as Kimberly says, each death usually generates a media mention, but actually keeping track of what’s happened to the case is a different matter. Especially in areas which may be slightly less well served by media, reporters find it difficult to keep track of these cases and to keep updating the readers on whether the officer involved has been cleared, or whether there has been further investigation.
So, that more than anything else, perhaps, took more calls to regional authorities, more records requests just to get information out of these authorities as to what’s happened with this case. They were so reluctant in many cases to actually say, “Well, yeah, we’ve actually quietly cleared this officer in this case, but we didn’t really announce it, and no one really asked, but here is the information.”
So, several times we came across cases where the officer had been cleared, the investigation had been completely finished, and no one noticed, and that was a concern to us – that with these cases, there is a flash of media interest, and then nothing. And actually to keep track of that was a thing that we were really determined to do in our database, and we continue to do in 2016. But I should have also explained that our database is also real time as well. Both of our databases were updated every day with every case that was coming to our attention each day. As Kimberly says, it’s about three a day.
Mr. Patterson: All right. So, all of you touched briefly, during your overview of your project on some of the challenges, problems, difficulties that you faced in ferreting out the story. I’m wondering if you could kind of go a little bit deeper for us in what was, for you, the major obstacle, challenge, problem that you faced in getting to the bottom of your investigation. Robin, you want to start and we’ll just work down the row?
Ms. McDowell: Well, I think I touched a little bit on that. It was very difficult to prove that the particular fish that was being caught was ending up in America. I would say that the second thing was finding men who were actually slaves instead of people who had already been rescued or who had escaped, but were actually active slaves, who were currently being forced to work, that was something that – we didn’t set out to find a slave island, but that’s kind of what we did.
From that point, in a way, it was almost easy. From that point, you had a huge group of men who were just so incredibly desperate, and so eager to tell their stories, and a lot of times when you meet victims, they’re afraid to tell their story, or they want to have their identity protected. But these guys felt like they died already.
They had been stranded on this island, some of them for 20 years, some of them more like five or 10. They had no contact with their family members, had been basically left for dead and had no contact with the outside world.
So when there was a journalist there, their stories were just pouring out, and I guess in a way, one of the biggest challenges then was: here are these men who are being incredibly brave telling their stories, willing to risk their lives, men in cages. With graveyards with their friends who have died and just kind of disappeared into nothing. How do you honor the bravery of these men, and use those names, and use those videos, and uses those cases, but, at the same time, protect them?
Mr. Patterson: Right.
Ms. McDowell: You know, because we didn’t want to use their names, and faces, and video, and then have them be killed, because they were with their abusers and we were no longer there.
So I think the main challenge for us was, how do we do both? How do we hold onto the power of the story by using their own voices, and protect them?
Fortunately, we had a very good source with the IOM [International Organization for Migration]. My colleague, Margie Mason, worked with him very closely and we showed him the video of the guys in the cage. We told him what we wanted to do and he recognized the importance of it, so basically, we gave him a list of the eight men that we used on video, or whose quotes we used in the stories, and he worked with the Indonesian marine police to get them off the island before we published the story. At the same time, we had The New York Times right on our tails as well.
Mr. Patterson: Right.
Ms. McDowell: So, there was the competitive nature of –
Mr. Patterson: So, when you went to Benjina, the people kind of in control of the slaves must have been suspicious of what you were up to. Was there any sort of sense that you were there and could harm them and therefore, you felt in danger?
Ms. McDowell: Well, I think in the beginning, they had been doing it for such a long time that they just were not afraid. So when we initially went, it was myself and an Indonesian cameraman, Indonesian photographer, and we told them that we were doing a story about the new fisheries ministry, and how rich the marine life was in Indonesia. They were kind of happy to show off the fishing.
There was a pretty big fishing business there. It had been there for about a decade, and in the beginning, they were happy to show those guys around, but they constantly had a government minder with them. So, you can go to look at the factory, but we’re going to come with you, and I kind of broke off at that point and pretended like I was more interested in teaching English at the school, or you know, visiting the market or…
Mr. Patterson: Right.
Ms. McDowell: I was free, and they were stuck with the government minder. At a certain point, when my colleagues wanted to follow up on what I had come across, like the graveyard or whatever, and would disappear for a few hours, those government minders started getting really nervous and angry, and basically kicked us off. Then I was left alone, and my Burmese colleague came, so we were okay for a few days, but after awhile, they really hated us as well. That’s when they kind of chased after us in the boats and threatened us.
Mr. Patterson: So, Jon, problems, challenges, difficulties?
Mr. Swaine: I’d say that our biggest challenge was, compared with the vast scale of this issue, the small team that we had actually. The Post had a bigger team. The Department of Justice’s team are now doing the same thing with 20 people with two super computers; whereas, my colleague, Oliver Laughland, who is there, he and I started it just together, the two of us. We hired a researcher, a brilliant young reporter called Jamiles Lartey.
Later in the year, the three of us hired an intern, another brilliant young reporter, Ciara McCarthy, to allow us, as a trio, to do the more investigative articles as well, but really that was it. I mean, the database was designed by producers, and people who can code, and things like that, but it was a small team basically, and we worked day in and day out all year, weekends, late nights, just flat out to match institutions and organizations with a bit more resources basically, and to keep up, as Kimberly says, with not just the new cases each day, but the cases that already happened, and to examine, as I just mentioned, to keep track of the status of each case.
It’s much more than just, “there is a new case today, there is a new case today.” It’s this weight of information of so many different issues that you have to keep track of with Google alerts and with calls to authorities over and over again to keep the information coming.
It was exhausting and as a small team, we kind of at times thought, “Why are we doing this?” But we sort of got through it, I guess.
Mr. Patterson: Lisa?
Ms. Song: I think one of the main challenges was just finding people who were still alive and willing to talk. There were some former Exxon employees who still depended on the company for their pensions, and things like that, so they obviously were not going to talk.
Another challenge is InsideClimate is very small. We had, I think eight reporters total while we were doing this, and four of us were on this project, and the other four had to keep the website alive for months.
So we were willing to put in a lot of resources, basically, half the team just to do this story. And also we’re a virtual news organization, so we’re not in the same place physically. We have some people in San Diego, and the rest of us are on the East Coast. Trying to do things mostly by email, phone, and Google Hangout, and we met a couple of times in person. That was fun.
Mr. Patterson: Jessica?
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: So, I think we had two kind of primary challenges. The first was, I mentioned briefly, these two Supreme Court decisions. There was one in 2011 and one in 2013, and both received almost no attention, in part because they were dense, legalistic decisions that basically were premised on this idea that it was fine to ban class actions.
It was fine to say that you cannot go to court. You’re waiving as a condition of, say, going into a nursing home, or signing a credit card, or renting a car, or taking out a student loan. You’re waiving your right to file a class action, and that’s fine because there is this other great system called arbitration, which is a perfectly fair alternative to going to court for people to resolve disputes up front – any kind of dispute, whether it’s a small dollar dispute or something larger.
That had been largely untested. So this incredibly important basis for these two decisions, no one had gone about seeing, well, is arbitration actually a fair alternative to court? And there are a couple of reasons why people didn’t do that.
One, there is no federal requirement that arbitration decisions be disclosed publicly. So, no one had looked at how many people were actually going to arbitration. That was the first thing.
With my colleague, Rob Gebeloff – so between 2010 and 2014, only about 500 people, 505 people went to arbitration for disputes of $2,500.00 or less. This whole notion that millions of people could fairly resolve their disputes through arbitration – we started to see that that was incorrect, but it was a huge challenge to even get to the point where we could quantify the number of people who were going to arbitration, so that was the first thing.
What our reporting showed was, basically, we ended up at this idea that corporations had killed the class action, but it wasn’t enough to just stop there.
The next huge challenge, I think, was trying to figure out the way that they did this because, as I said, this amounted to a huge power play. You, as a corporation, can just get out of the legal system entirely. You can opt out, but how did you do this?
The reason that I think people hadn’t figured this out was because it was a very technical process. What happened was about 10 years ago, maybe 20 state court judges, when they were getting cases where companies were saying that you can’t file a class action, they were saying, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re going to overturn this clause and allow you to go to court because this amounts to having a get out of jail free card.” They actually said that. They said, “Look, Discover credit card company, if you ban people from going to form a class action, you are exempting yourself entirely, you’re getting out of jail free.”
So, we saw that state court judges were striking down these clauses, and then suddenly that changed. What happened was that a case where a state court judge in California had struck down a clause made it all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court basically said to the state court judges, “No, no, no, no. You’re overstepping your authority. You have no right to strike down these clauses. We’re going to uphold them.”
We set out to try to figure out how that happened, and in order to do that, we really needed to learn the law, and also to win the trust of the architects of the arbitration clauses, who were a bunch of corporate lawyers who had no interest in telling us how they had engineered this kind of incredible coup.
The big challenge was learning the law almost better than they knew it, or as well as they knew it, and to go to them, and say, “Look, I understand the genius of what you did. I mean, regardless of whether we think class actions are good or bad, we can disagree on that, we can both agree that you’ve killed them.”
By saying that to them and then actually walking through, with these various lawyers, how they did it by saying, “Oh, so this is the legal argument that you engineered in this instance, and this is the one that you made to the appellate court in New York, and this is the one that you made to the appellate court in California,” that began to help us because we were I think winning the respect of the people that had done this.
Because, just to say to them, “Look, I know what you did and I think it’s rather remarkable,” was a powerful thing. And then I had learned in the course of reporting, that one of the key players behind the scenes in this legal coup was John Roberts, who now we all know as the Supreme Court Justice, but when he was a private litigator, he represented Discover bank in a case that the Supreme Court actually refused to take. But the basis of that case was that arbitration should be allowed to ban class actions and this was a very contentious idea. The Supreme Court didn’t grant cert. In very simple terms, they didn’t agree to take the case.
Fast forward eight years, Justice Roberts is no longer a private lawyer. He’s a Supreme Court Justice, and suddenly the Supreme Court agrees to take a case involving the very same kind of issues that it had previously denied to take.
We knew that he had made this legal petition, on behalf of Discover, to get the Supreme Court to take this case, and I went to talk to one of the lawyers who was an architect of the decision and I asked him, “What do you make of John Roberts now being on the Court? It seems like it would be to your advantage since he had written this brief in 2002 petitioning the Supreme Court to take the very same case that they ended up taking eight years later.”
I think the lawyer that I was talking to was so shocked that we even knew about this that he was thrilled to talk about it.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: So, he was like, “Oh, well, we thought that we had a really good shot of winning that Supreme Court case because actually, I helped John Roberts craft that brief and then he helped us later on.” I mean, that was kind of a remarkable turn for us because it showed just how concerted this effort had been and how it involved the highest levels of the Supreme Court.
So that, to me, was one of the biggest challenges.
Mr. Patterson: Michael?
Mr. LaForgia: In our case, just wrangling the data that went into producing these stories – we did five stories at the end of the day – was a pretty big task. It was a big challenge for us. It was the most intensive data type work that I’ve ever done on a project, and basically, we took databases on test scores, student discipline, teacher quality. We had two or three, possibly four different data sets that we were working with on teacher quality, and data on assignments, to special programs for kids, and analyzed them in a way that, if we had wanted to, we could have produced probably five separate investigative projects.
We rolled it all up and synthesized it into one. Just knowing what to leave in, and what to leave out took a long time, and it was something that we had to think a lot about.
The other thing I would say is, mind-set was a challenge. The mind-set of the officials who we were dealing with, and even reporters and editors at the paper. The first part of that is, when you have something like poverty or failure at school, it’s tempting to just write it off as this immutable, unchangeable truth that exists in the world, and to avoid looking at how it evolved and became this way, and to sort of obscure the accountability that you could bring to the situation, if you just ask the question, “Well, why does this situation exist as it does today?”
When a group of disadvantaged kids does well in school, it’s because the school district did a great job, but when they fail, it’s because they don’t come to school wanting to learn, or they’ve got bad parents.
So convincing people that that wasn’t the case was a challenge for us. But at the end of the day, I think we pulled it off.
Mr. Patterson: Kimberly, before you start, we’re going to open it up for questions from the floor.
So if you have a question, we have a mike here, and a mike there, and if you would, walk up to the mike if you’d like to ask the panel a question.
Ms. Kindy: Oh, sure. Well, surprisingly, a lack of resources was a big problem here too. I mean, it looked like we had a huge number of people, and for some stories we did, and we certainly had a huge group of people doing amazing things like videos and graphics, and the like, but when it came to writing the stories – I’ll give you an example of how alone it felt at times.
I decided that we needed to do something on body cameras, the truth behind them, because they were being promoted as these tools of transparency and accountability, and I had a sneaky suspicion that that wasn’t what was really going on.
So, I started to do some digging and I decided that the best way to do this was to identify every single case in which there was a body camera video, and go to the department and ask them not only for the video, but ask them to tell me exactly what their policy was on release. Would they release it immediately after the event? Was it not until the investigation concluded? What investigation? The administrative investigation, or the criminal investigation into the officer?
I also wanted to take a look at all of the body camera bills that were being introduced in state legislatures because I was hearing that the police unions and the police chiefs’ organizations were strongly lobbying on these, and instead of them being tools of transparency and accountability, they were changing the language in bills so that they would be exempt from public records laws.
I had to call 50 police departments multiple times in order to get the data for the analysis on what was really going on with release, and I had to analyze over 200 bills, and I had the help of Julie Tate, who called 20 of the departments for me, because I thought I was going to drown, but otherwise, I did that all on my own.
The Post had a lot of resources on it, but at the end of the day, that was one of five investigative stories I did last year, and it’s the kind of thing that most investigative reporters would have spent a year on and that was just one of my five stories.
Basically, at 6:00 a.m., when my boyfriend would wake up, he would see me staring at the computer, and say, “Are you already at it?”
Ms. Kindy: Thankfully, he likes to watch sports on the weekend, and when he was watching sports, I was working. I worked all year long last year, and it was worth it, but lack of resources, and the incredible difficulty that I know The Guardian completely felt with us – the pain was shared. It was so hard to get anything from the police departments. You didn’t just call them, and they gave you something. You called, and you called, and you emailed, and you emailed, and you went to the city council and the county council. You did everything you could to put some pressure on them just to squeeze a little information out, and imagine if you got, dozens, hundreds of departments that you’re trying to do that with. It’s daunting.
Really, we both could have used 100 people, and they still would have been working all the time. So, lack of resources, police not answering your questions, those were the obstacles.
Mr. Patterson: Okay. We’ll take questions.
Mr. Gup: My name is Ted Gup, and I used to be able to claim being an investigative reporter. I don’t know if I can still claim that or not, but anyhow, my question is kind of broad, but it goes I think to all of you.
We live in a different political climate, and I’m wondering to what degree that change in political climate affected your reporting in terms of the sources of the problems that you looked at, the accessibility to officials, the responsiveness, their attitudes towards the press? How was your work changed by the change in the American political climate? I guess that’s what I would ask.
Mr. Patterson: You don’t all have to respond.
Ms. McDowell: I’ll make a really brief response to that.
Maybe one of you can go into it a little more, but my impression is a lot of investigative journalism in the past was looking for things that are illegal, and now, you’re looking for things that are legal. Abuses and things that have been legalized. That was the case in our situation, and it sounds like a lot of you had the same, aside from the Exxon story maybe.
Ms. Song: I think that climate change now is this huge partisan thing, right? It’s pretty hard to find anyone in the Republican Party who believes in the science, but –
Ms. Song: What our story showed was, back then in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Exxon was doing this research, it was not a partisan issue. Exxon really cared about doing the right science because they wanted a seat at the table when regulations came down the line and they were expecting that.
After our series came out, we did have many politicians commenting on it. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both said that they thought this warranted some kind of federal DOJ probe.
The attorney general of New York has started an investigation into this, and perhaps also the California AG as well.
There have been, all Democratic, some members of Congress calling for a federal probe into this, but I think with the elections coming up, and just how sensitive this issue is, I’m not sure if DOJ is quite eager to get into this, but there has been a lot of pressure on them to try to get them to look into this, the same way that they looked into big tobacco years ago.
Ms. Kindy: I would just agree with what Robin said. I think that one of the biggest challenges is that we’re constantly writing about things that are legal. You know, almost all these shootings have been deemed justified. Tamir Rice, all kinds of things that people have seen for themselves, with their own eyes, and people are starting to realize that that’s legal. What they’re doing is legal.
What Jessica uncovered – legal. And so your first challenge sometimes with these stories, is going to your editors and first telling them – obviously, not with police shooting stories – but with lots of other stories, explaining that it’s outrageous even though it’s legal. And then you have this huge threshold with readers, of explaining why they should be outraged even though it’s perfectly justified under the law, and that seems to be over, and over, and over again one of the huge challenges with investigative reporting these days I think.
Mr. Swaine: I think one other thing, on our issue, is the impact has been affected by the political climate. The bill proposed by Senators Boxer and Booker is stuck in the Senate Committee. A similar bill in the House is stuck. There is very, very little chance or prospect of either passing because the Republican majority seem to think that it’s too much to ask to mandate police departments to report this information. That’s all that this bill is essentially asking for. Make it a requirement for police departments to report this information, rather than making it voluntary, or making the Department of Justice have to proactively find these cases themselves. I think that’s, perhaps, quite surprising. You know, this is not a bill which is demonizing police. This is not a bill which claims all police shootings are not justified, but there is very little prospect of this reform passing. So, the FBI and the DOJ have to work around that with actions of their own.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: I think part of it for us, was kind of trying to understand that the Supreme Court, which we’d all I think like to believe is free of politics.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: Since Scalia’s death, I think we can all agree that maybe that’s not true.
You have the Roberts court that I think people have begun to show is a court that seems to be very, very pro-business. Its arbitration decisions – even though there was this huge uproar about Citizens United, and this move toward thinking about corporations, and giving them rights as if they’re individuals – the arbitration decision somehow escaped that analysis.
They weren’t looked at for what they really were, which are these very big gifts to corporate America. One of the challenges I think is that we had to show that this was a very political decision, both of them, both in 2011 and 2013.
That really came down to showing what the value of the class action is, and I think it gets villainized even by people within our own news organization, and I had my own preconceptions of what a class action was. I thought about it as ambulance chasers who file product liability cases that have to do with medical malpractice or something like that. It was a challenge to show that for a whole range of cases, class actions are actually the only method of bringing them.
Whether those are sexual harassment cases, unfair working condition cases, denial of minimum wage, antitrust cases where people are trying to fight a monopoly, we had to show that by eliminating that class action, it’s a big advantage that you give to business.
I think to show that the court, in these decisions, was a very political entity, was a part of reporting in this climate. I think that was one of the challenges.
Then, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actually in a decision recently on arbitration, she cited our stories in her dissent, which – I basically can die now, and I’ll be totally fine.
Mr. Gass: Thank you. My name is Henry Gass. I’m a reporter at The Christian Science Monitor here in Boston, and first of all, I’d just like to say thanks to The Guardian and the Post for your work, as I’ve used it in my reporting and it’s helped. It’s good for society, and good for lawmakers, but it’s also great for journalists, and I think that it’s great that you’ve both been nominated as well, and that the one didn’t preclude the other from a nomination.
My question is related to something that you two have sort of talked about today: the issue of competition with other outlets. Everyone is competing with other outlets, and I’m going to be the first guy to bring up “Spotlight” today. I’m surprised it has taken this long. But one of the interesting things in that is the debate that they had back in 2002, 2003 about when to publish, and they were competing with another news source, and they had to decide when they had the story, and when it was best to go with it, and I just wanted to ask all of you – when did you think you had the story, and when did you think you didn’t have the story and were worried about publishing too soon, or publishing too late?
Ms. McDowell: Well, the first was the safety of the men, but then the second was making the actual link to the American dinner table because that also was a very, very complicated process that my colleague, Martha Mendoza concentrated on. Basically for a few weeks, we thought we could only link it to the domestic market in Thailand, and so it was kind of like, do we go with it, or do we wait while we have other competitive pressures?
Mr. Swaine: I think we, very early on, were determined to publish our database for the first time once we had several months of data so as to avoid misleading appearances of trends and things like that. Once we had five months worth of data, we launched the database on June 1st.
As Kimberly said, the Post, a couple of days before that, had published their first story on their findings, and we could have that evening rushed out a similar thing, but we decided we’d carry on, and the database came out on June 1st, and then as Kimberly said, theirs followed in July. I mean it’s always a challenge to know when to press the button, but we feel like we did right.
Ms. Song: We basically had the key documents by I think May or June, and we wanted to work as quickly as possible. One of our considerations was with the Paris climate talks in December of 2015, we wanted our stories to come out before that, so that they wouldn’t get lost in the noise of the Paris coverage, and we ended up publishing in the middle of September.
About a month after we published, the Los Angeles Times released their own story that basically came to the same conclusions, and they had partnered up with the Columbia Journalism School, and they used different documents. Most of theirs were from public company archives, and it was pretty interesting.
I, personally, had not known they were working on that project at the same time we were and it was nice to see that these two completely independent projects reached the same conclusion using different documents.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: I don’t think we really had competitive pressure. I mean, no one really wanted to look into arbitration.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: But the CFPB, this national regulator, had proposed rules. Basically, a draft of rules that would prevent financial companies from banning class actions in their contracts and they put it out, I don’t know, Michael, like September? In May, and being the jittery, crazy reporters that we are, we did a small news story about it, about the proposed rule, and I was afraid that was going to spur a whole host of coverage. My editor assured me that I was being crazy.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: And I was, but the thing is that small story – I hadn’t been in the paper for a while because I was working on this and I got a lot of emails from people saying, “Wait. That 500 word story was your investigation?”
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: “What have you been doing?”
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: I was like, “No, no, no. It’s not.”
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: Anyway, I think it’s slightly different.
Mr. LaForgia: In terms of knowing when to pull the trigger for us it’s interesting. We didn’t set out to write a story about re-segregation. The longest serving reporter on our team had been at the newspaper for about three years, so we were kind of short on institutional knowledge.
What we were doing was looking at the student test scores, and we noticed that there was a precipitous drop in the reading and math scores around 2008, 2009, and so we started scratching our heads, and saying, you know, maybe something happened around this time period, let’s check the clips. And we went into the archives, and sure enough, there was a decision by the school board to revert to neighborhood schools, and that’s how the story came about, so then we wrote it.
Ms. Kindy: It was a similar thing for us as at The Guardian. After we had a few months of data, and we thought we had some trends that were kind of reliable, we started planning the story, and I just started spending a lot of time looking at the database, which was pretty primitive at that point. And after several weeks of just staring at it, and doing my own math on pieces of paper, because it hadn’t really been built out as much as it eventually was, it became pretty clear that half of the cases were incidents that involved people who were behaving erratically either because they were on drugs or they were mentally ill, and that about half of them had legitimate criminal stuff going on and officers were showing up to robberies and stuff.
Once I spotted those trends, we kind of knew how we were going to write it and pulled the trigger on the first story.
Of course, when there is competition, you’re worried about it, but I don’t think anybody cared but us and The Guardian, who got it first. You know?
I just think that America was super glad that there were people who were taking a look at it and publishing stories, and putting pressure on authorities so that they would start tracking it, and I’m pretty sure that there are about 20 people, between the two organizations, that really cared about who did it first, and the rest of America doesn’t really know.
Mr. Patterson: So, we started a little bit late. It’s closing time, but I’m going to take one more question. It would be great if it would be something they could all give a thoughtful sound bite answer to.
From the Audience: My name is Denesh. I’m an investigative reader if anything.
From the Audience: I just wanted to thank you all for your courage, dedication, hard work, putting your marriages on the line and all of that.
From the Audience: I had two questions, but I’ll limit myself to one. How do you keep your motivation going? I mean, I could read to you the title of a book published in 1967, by Jonathan Kozol, called Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Minds and Hearts of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools. This is 1967 and we’re still fighting this fight.
How do you keep your motivation going when you know the best you can do maybe is a short term result? How do you do it?
Mr. LaForgia: You know, I began working on this story in March of 2014 and basically, just stopped working on it within the last couple of weeks.
For once, this is the one story that I’ve worked on that I never got tired of doing. It was just that important. There were so many different facets and so much nuance to the different things that we were bringing to light that there was an endless supply of stuff to keep you interested, and plus, it was just a frigging outrage. You know? That this was going on in our community and being allowed to continue with nobody really raising any questions about it. So, in this case, it wasn’t hard to stay committed to it.
Ms. Kindy: It’s a really good question.
Once I shut down an entire state agency because it was such a boondoggle, and I was super proud, and then I moved away, and it’s up and running again.
Ms. Kindy: You know, you can get really discouraged, but if you’ve been doing it long enough, you know that the most you’re going to be able to do is just create some small change. And then you hope that it holds, and that some other reporter comes along and some more small change happens, and it continues, and that over time, maybe we’re all dead before you really can look back and see, oh, because of 20 reporters and because of 50 activists, and because of all this work people have done that constantly put pressure on important moments, that over time things changed and things improved.
Certainly, it’s discouraging, what you just said, when you think about what Michael has done, and what he discovered, but maybe if you look back at what the educational system looked like nationally a long time ago, maybe you would find almost every school district, not too long ago, looked like the one that Michael wrote about.
So, your hope is that you produce a little change, and then somebody else comes along, and produces a little change, and you hope that unlike that state agency, it holds.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: Yeah. I think that’s really perfectly said. You’re a part of something much broader. That’s why it’s such an honor to be among so many journalists trying to do the same thing.
Because Kimberly said it so articulately, I don’t think I need to go into why I’m heartened by other people’s work, but another big thing that kind of sustains you and keeps you going is your crazy family within the paper.
I have a brilliant, brilliant editor and amazing colleagues, and it’s also just kind of going home, and talking to your friends, and having them tell you that you’re not going to go totally crazy.
Ms. Silver-Greenberg: Also, our families. I mean, Michael’s parents are here today, which is awesome, and I think I draw a lot of sustenance from the people who are around me and who believe in the project even when I forget to.
Ms. Song: I would say for this story, it was really easy to stay motivated because the documents were just so exciting. We knew that we were the first people outside of Exxon to have ever seen them, so it was great. And our editor, Jack Kushman, had been reporting on the climate forever, and if he was completely shocked by these documents, then the rest of us knew that we had something really good. It was very easy to stay motivated, and we haven’t stopped, and we have some follow up stories planned as well.
Mr. Swaine: I think the way we remained motivated was just seeing the reaction from readers. You know, at the end of the day, we do this for people who read the work and we had such an overwhelming response – I should have mentioned that to you earlier. We had thousands of people sending in tips, and sending in photographs and information about people who had died, and just to have people say that we’re reading what you do, we think it’s important, please, continue – there is nothing more really. You know, that’s why you come into this work.
Ms. McDowell: This one was kind of easy.
Ms. McDowell: I think covering a lot of tragedies, and interviewing people who have been abused again and again and again, and all you can really say to them, when they’re asking you, “What’s going to happen with your story? Is it going to help me?” It’s pretty much what you all were saying, we hope over time it will do something.
In this particular case, when we met those men and we saw that staggering level of desperation, I really felt confident in being able to tell them “We will get you off this island. You are not going to get stuck on this island.”
It was kind of a mixture of fortuitous events that the fisheries minister was this really kick ass woman, who wouldn’t let this happen on her watch, and we knew that she would make it happen.
We were in a way, a little disappointed that it happened so quickly because we had a whole bunch of great stories.
Ms. McDowell: The guys went back home. Like, send our guys back.
Mr. Patterson: You know, this morning’s panel demonstrates why we have the Goldsmith Awards for Investigative Reporting. This is really important work. This is inspiring work.
To me, it’s also somewhat evolving work. I kept hearing words like “data analysis,” “data collection,” “data gathering,” and so on. Maybe 10 years ago that word would have been less prominent. The method may be changing, but the goal is the same and I’d like to congratulate, again, all the Goldsmith Award finalists, the AP, Guardian US, InsideClimate News, The New York Times, Tampa Bay Times, Washington Post, and particularly to Robin, John, Lisa, Jessica, Michael and Kimberly for representing, not only your organizations so well, but the whole investigative reporting field.