A panel discussion with the winner and finalists of the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Journalists from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Sarasota Herald-Tribune and The Wall Street Journal will discuss the making of their investigative reports.
• Shane Bauer, senior reporter, Mother Jones
• David Cloud, reporter, Washington bureau, Los Angeles Times
• Danny Robbins, investigative reporter, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
• Sam Roe, investigative reporter, Chicago Tribune
• Josh Salman, investigative reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
• Michael Siconolfi, editor, investigations, The Wall Street Journal
• Nicco Mele, Shorenstein Center director, moderator
Nicco Mele: Good morning, everyone. My name is Nicco Mele, I’m director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy here at the Kennedy School. It’s good to see everyone here this morning, this is Friday at 9:00 a.m., it’s always a little early for our student population. And maybe for everyone, yes. (Laughter) This morning, we have the pleasure of following up last night’s Goldsmith Awards with an incredible panel of our awards finalists, and our winner, Shane Bauer. I’m looking forward to hearing from the panelists about their work, why they were pursuing these stories, what some of the great challenges they faced in reporting them out looked like. And then I’m hoping we have a little bit of a wider discussion about their stories and the importance of investigative reporting, especially in this moment.
One thing I do want to recognize upfront is we have an all-male panel this year. We strive to have gender equity in all of our programming here at the Kennedy School, at least in the Shorenstein Center, as well as a great deal of diversity. And our Goldsmith Award panel last year was an even gender split, and by coincidence this year, we have all men. We focus on the reporting, not on the names behind it, for the most part. And so, this is not by design, but rather by coincidence.
Before we begin, I want to just thank the Greenfield Foundation again, which underwrites the Goldsmith Awards. This is the twenty-fifth year we’ve received their support, and we’re very grateful. Without further ado, I’m going to introduce our panelists. To my left is Shane Bauer, senior reporter of Mother Jones magazine. His work has focused on the Middle East and North Africa, as well as criminal justice in the United States. He’s won a number of national awards, including the Hillman Prize for Magazine Journalism. On my right is David Cloud, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau. He specializes in covering military and national security issues. He’s also worked at The New York Times as a Pentagon correspondent, and at The Wall Street Journal, where he was a member of the team of reporters awarded a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks. Next to David is Sam Roe, an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He was part of the reporting team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for an examination of unsafe children’s products, and he is a three time Pulitzer finalist. He shared the Goldsmith Prize in 2013 and was a Goldsmith finalist in 2000. This is old hat for him. And down at the very end of the table here, is Danny Robbins, a member of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigative team. He joined the newspaper in July of 2013 after previously working as an investigative reporter in the Dallas bureau of the Associated Press, and at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. All the way at the very end, on my left, Mike Siconolfi is an investigations editor at The Wall Street Journal and co-led the Journal’s “Medicare Unmasked Coverage,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2015, as well as a Gerald Loeb Award and an IRE Freedom of Information Award. And last but not least, Josh Salman is an award-winning investigative reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where he focuses on long-form projects. His reporting has triggered federal investigations, uncovered illegal activity by convicted felons, exposed loopholes that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and prompted new city ordinances and helped struggling families save their dream homes. Which is an exciting, compelling, and the best description of investigative reporting I’ve seen in some time. So I want to thank the panel this morning, I think I’m going to give the privilege of starting to Shane. I’m just going to ask each member of the panel to speak briefly about what led you to this story, and the most significant challenge you faced in reporting it.
Shane Bauer: Thanks. I think that’s always a hard question to answer. I mean, I don’t know ultimately. But it was a challenge, that was part of it. I had been reporting on prisons for a few years, and generally reporting on prisons in the United States is a process of continual frustration. You come up against walls all the time. I mean, departments of corrections generally do everything they can to keep you out. If you get inside of a prison, you get a one-hour tour. In many states, you can’t interview prisoners of your choice. So, you end up having to do letter correspondences, which takes months for an in depth story. Private prisons was something I’d been interested in, I had not really reported on private prisons, and the more I looked into them, the more that I realized they were still very mysterious. The information we have of them is when there’s some disaster. There is a riot, you know, they come into the news, or there was a big lawsuit in Idaho a few years back, and an FBI investigation that was alleging severe understaffing and fraud. The company was essentially saying that there were people working there who weren’t, and so, I wanted to get a really up close look. But then, really kind of get inside that world and to paint the world of a prison. I had done this in a different way before, because I had been a prisoner myself in Iran, wrote about that experience as a memoir, and so, I had been thinking, how can I do something like this, essentially? But one, I’m free, and two, I can record the experience as I go. But still get that level of detail, and paint that world. So, I just put—filled out an application kind of on a whim, and I didn’t think it would work. And I got a bunch of phone calls asking for interviews. So, a couple weeks later, I had many places to choose from.
Nicco Mele: Let me ask you a couple questions about that. One, what was the decision to go undercover about? How did that come about, what was that discussion with your editor like? What were some of your concerns in deciding to do that?
Shane Bauer: Yeah. The decision to do it, my idea of doing it basically was because there wasn’t really another way to get in. And the idea was inspired by Ted Conover, who spent a year as a prison guard at Sing-Sing Prison in upstate New York in the late ’90s, and wrote a book about it called Newjack, which is a great book. And so, I kind of thought, why not try to do this for a private prison? And I brought the idea to my editors, told them I wanted to apply, and at that point, I think they didn’t think it would work either.
Nicco Mele: When you were starting to apply, did you decide explicitly you were going to be transparent about who you were and what you were doing?
Shane Bauer: Yeah, we did. That was really just the gist of our initial conversation was they thought it would be a great idea if it worked out, but it probably wouldn’t, but whatever I do, just don’t lie in the application process. Or at all. So that’s basically where we started. And then once I started getting calls back, I told them, this is happening. So then we really had much more extensive conversations about it, talked some more about that same issue of not lying. I mean the baseline was that I didn’t have to offer up information unless asked, but I would never say something that was not true. Then we had a lot of talks with the lawyers. Essentially, I had some different options of states to go to. And so the lawyers basically started digging into the laws of those states to see partially whether any would give us more leeway, they wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing anything illegal, and we also had to figure out a lot of bureaucratic stuff like worker’s comp, what happens if I get stabbed, you know? When CCA offers me insurance, how does that interact with my own insurance? These kind of boring bureaucratic things we had to figure out. And that was basically it. And they kind of just left it open for me. They were very clear the whole time that if at any point I wanted to stop, even if I moved, got down there and realized actually this is crazy, I don’t want to do this, that I should pull out.
Nicco Mele: Did that thought cross your mind?
Shane Bauer: That it was crazy? It did. But, not to pull out, no. And actually, I think that was one of the challenges later on, I had been there for four months, and the job was really wearing on me a lot. I was kind of at the point where I’d been there long enough that for a while it was like, every day there was just new material, it was incredible. I mean, there were days that I was there that were like, it would have taken me months to get any of this, you know? Aside from interactions and events which make up the story, there were these little tidbits. Whenever someone would get stabbed, I would record it, and then later I did a public records request to see, because the company is required to report those to the Department of Corrections, and I found that they reported drastically less than what was happening. There are so many little things like that, that either would have been impossible to get, or would have taken months to get anywhere near. There was this kind of excitement in being in there, from just the journalistic point of view. But the longer I spent there, the less frequent those kinds of gets were. But the job of being a guard was just getting harder.
Nicco Mele: What about it was getting harder?
Shane Bauer: The dynamics with prisoners were getting more complicated. I was struggling a lot with the fact that I was really becoming a guard. I mean, I was finding myself being more and more overbearing, and it was hard to control that. I was essentially in a unit with 350 people, with one other guard.
Nicco Mele: So 350 prisoners, two guards?
Shane Bauer: Yeah. That are on the floor, there were some in a control room, there was one control room. I was aware that it might be time to wrap up. But there’s always a question of what’s going to happen tomorrow, you know? So, it was actually hard to pull the plug, and unfortunately, but also maybe fortunately, my colleague got arrested photographing a prison, so we just wrapped up.
Nicco Mele: That prompted the end of your employment?
Shane Bauer: Yeah, yeah.
Nicco Mele: And what do you think surprised you most about the whole experience?
Shane Bauer: I would say the thing that surprised me most was the situation with the guards. I was expecting on some level to see results of cost cutting, effects on prisoners, and conditions. But the line between prisoners and guards was much thinner than I realized. I would see guards, there was a lot of conflict, but also there were a lot of moments of almost camaraderie between them. Everyone across the board, outside of the upper levels of the administration, absolutely hated the company. And so guards and prisoners would bond on that. And that was an issue for those supervisors, because new guards would come in, it wouldn’t take long for them to feel a little screwed by the fact that they’re getting $9 an hour in this really difficult job, and they would kind of go over to the prisoners’ side. So they weren’t doing their jobs, some of them would start bringing in contraband, and a lot of the guards and prisoners I would see sometimes, people would know each other from childhood. I mean, they’re all essentially in the same socioeconomic class. The guards are really poor. The prisoners are from all over the state. I remember one guard saying I’ve done illegal things and I just happened to not end up on that side, you know? It’s like almost random.
Nicco Mele: So, I’m going to ask you two more questions that I actually asked you last night, but this morning we’re on the record, being recorded, being broadcast, podcast, transcribed. So the first is just, what the future holds for private prisons?
Shane Bauer: I think that it’s very hard to say what the future holds for anything right now in this country. So I’m hesitant to predict anything. But I can say what’s happened, which is that a few weeks after we published this story, or shortly after we published it actually, somebody from the Department of Justice Inspector General’s office reached out to me, said that the story really resonated with them, they had been looking at private prisons, and a few weeks after that they released a report saying that the cost savings of private prisons are negligible. That’s really the main argument for using private prisons, is that they’re cheaper. They were more dangerous, they had less rehabilitative programs, and I think they might have had something about medical care in there. And the Department of Justice announced that they were going to discontinue their use of private prisons. Once the contracts for these prisons ran up, they would not renew them. The stock price of these companies completely tanked, dropped in half, they lost I think over a billion dollars in total, and then when Donald Trump was elected, the stocks skyrocketed, CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, now known as Core Civic—
Nicco Mele: They rebranded from Corrections Corporation of America to Core Civic?
Shane Bauer: Right, right. They’re a government solutions company now. Their stock raised more than any company in the stock market that day. I can only assume that it is based on an expectation that there will be more immigrants in detention, because immigrant detention centers are—over half of them are run by private prison companies. And then, last week, Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama era decision to stop using private prisons. I think it’s very unlikely that the use of them is going to be curbed any time soon, certainly on a federal level. We could see changes on the state level. States have been grappling with private prison use. In Louisiana, actually, Winn is no longer run by the Corrections Corporation of America, although it is run by another private prison company. The issue is clearly becoming more severe. And I think governments are grappling with it. As I said last night, there have been other times in history, there’s a time that I’m looking at a lot right now, after the Civil War, in the South, their prison systems were all privatized. They were all run by companies. They were using prisoners for labor, but when that system ended, it was a staggered process from state to state, and generally state legislators would say, we’re discontinuing this, and there would be a back and forth over a period of 5 to 10 years, and I think that’s normal for a lot of issues like this. So, maybe that’ll happen. Maybe we’ll just privatize all of our prisons, who knows?
Nicco Mele: Didn’t, by the way, Shane, after the Civil War, when prisons were privatized, didn’t that sort of lead to forced slavery again, essentially? There was the whole period in American history after the Emancipation Proclamation—
Shane Bauer: Yeah, I mean prisoners were essentially working on plantations, building railroads, working in mines, death rates were extremely high, many people say higher than slavery, because prisoners, they were forced labor the same way that slaves were, although with prisoners, it was for a period of time, not their whole lives. But, the people working them did not own them. And so that meant they were essentially leasing a number of prisoners, so if a prisoner dies, you just get another one. And as the lessee, you don’t have to actually pay for that.
Nicco Mele: So my last question is: In some ways this was a really unusual way to report this story, to go and apply to be a prison guard. And you had mentioned last night that you thought that this is in part because the powerful are getting less and less accessible. So I wonder if you could just talk about that for a moment.
Shane Bauer: Yeah, there’s a couple of things here. One, so if we just talk about prisons, you know, when I read accounts from the ’70s, the access that journalists had at that time was incredible. People were going in day after day, photographers just kind of on their own, being let into these prisons, the conditions were terrible. For some reason, at that time, there was not this level of protection that there is now, that is, before the age of mass incarceration that we’re in now. I think corrections departments have become much more defensive, because they’ve been criticized heavily. We have the largest prison population in the world.
The other issue is broader, and about journalism generally. There was the Food Lion case, I don’t remember what year that was, but ABC News went undercover in a food chain, they were working and were essentially being made to repackage spoiled meat. They did a report on it, Food Lion sued, and they initially won something like $5 million. Over the years, it was reduced to $1. But, that really changed not only news organizations’ willingness to do undercover reporting, but that also was part of a process, I think, where corporations in particular have been becoming much more protective. It’s very normal now to have signed nondisclosure agreements, which I didn’t have to do, fortunately. And that web of secrecy is getting tighter and tighter. We’ve seen in the last year or two, a lot of major lawsuits against news organizations, essentially punishing them for reporting. Mother Jones dealt with one for three years, against a guy, a billionaire political donor named Frank VanderSloot, who was mad about a story we did. And he lost, we won the lawsuit, but it cost tons of money, you know? And if you’re a billionaire and you want to take down a small news organization, you just keep the lawsuit running. So I think a lot of organizations are rightfully cautious about that.
Nicco Mele: All right, David, tell us a little bit about your story with the California National Guard, and how you came to that story, and what challenges you encountered reporting it out.
David Cloud: Sure. There’s sort of two parts to that. One is that for the previous two years, and Bob Drogan, who’s my editor, somewhere here in the audience, will know this. I’d been working on stories, I’d been fascinated by the impact of war on soldiers, on their personal lives, on their mental state, on all aspects of their lives. So, the previous year, I’d written a long, long, probably too long story about a Michigan National Guard unit that had gone to Afghanistan, several of whom had been wounded in a really bad ambush. They came back, and the story was sort of tracing their attempts to rehabilitate themselves back into their community. With the idea that the National Guard, at least in theory and at one point, was this citizen soldier entity, where people, at least in myth, left their jobs in civilian life, went into the military for a brief period of time, and did their duty, and then went back to their civilian lives. But spending time with many of these Michigan National Guard soldiers over months showed me was that that whole paradigm is gone now, because of the continual deployment of National Guard units for the last decade and a half. Many young soldiers see that National Guard as their career. And this is all related also to economic opportunity as well, particularly in a place like Michigan. So these young men and women, in some cases, join the National Guard, and then they get on this cycle where they go to war, they come home, they spend the money—and they make good money—they spend the money they make, in any way that they choose, in some cases in very self-destructive ways, then they go back to work. And it goes, and goes, and goes. And so much of the story was sort of recounting how these young people had been left behind by their peers who had had families, and gone to school, and blah-de-blah. It was really about the military civilian divide. So I’ve been interested in those whole set of issues.
This year, I’d been working on a story about child abuse rates in the military, which have gone through the roof in the last decade and a half. So, I’m interested in looking at this whole set of issues, about the impact of the war on individual soldiers. And then I got an email from a woman who said, “Are you aware that the California Guard is going after these bonuses that they offered to soldiers back, in some cases, a decade ago, large bonuses to sign up, and in many cases be sent to war?” And I wasn’t. As reporters here will appreciate, I vividly recall a conversation with Bob where he said, well, what are you working on? And I gave him two sort of bad story ideas, and then as I was literally walking away, I said, “Well I got this email, and I think I might look into that.” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, do that.”
So it was sort of a unique experience in my journalistic career, because it was one of these stories that was not known, although I have to say that The Sacramento Bee, in credit to fellow journalists, wrote about this at the time when the first revelations about these California Guard bonuses came out. So they wrote about the story as essentially a fraud story. Which in part, it was. But what I focused on, what this email was focused on, was on the recoupment of these bonuses, which happened years later. Soldiers who had done their time, had taken these bonuses in good faith, with no fraud involved, thousands of them, were being told, you have to pay back $15,000, $20,000, $30,000, up to $80,000. Obviously in many cases these people didn’t have the money to pay back, and the tactics that were used were heavy-handed: tax liens, wage garnishment, threatening letters, the full force of the federal government came down on these people. And it was all there. This was not an investigative story that required me to meet people in parking lots and things like that. It was a question of finding names and in a classic reporting way, working one name after another—do you know anybody who’s also in this situation?
I’ll just close by saying the biggest thing that I had to overcome was the narrative—and I don’t like that word, but in this case I think it’s apt—which had been promulgated by the California Guard, which is that this was a fraud case. That all of these bonuses had been given and taken—and that’s the important part—taken in some cases fraudulently. In fact, as I said, it wasn’t a fraud case. It was a mismanagement case. The Guard needed soldiers. And they realized that the way to get soldiers quickly to go to Iraq and Afghanistan was to pay large bonuses. And they put one overwhelmed master sergeant in charge of the whole state, and handing out bonuses. She was sent to prison for fraud, and was the only person. But in fact, the whole system was designed to push money out the door, to get it to soldiers, to get their name on reenlistment contracts. And then send them to Iraq. And then when it came out that it was fraudulent, they switched course, and started going after these people to get the money back, and spread this idea that it was all fraudulent. It wasn’t fraudulent, it was mismanagement.
Nicco Mele: And when you were doing the investigation, to what extent did it just seem like an institutional system gone awry? Versus individual culpability?
David Cloud: I think it is in large part a story about institutional failure, at multiple levels. At the California Guard level where, as I’ve said, they passed out the money improperly, and then went after people heavy handedly. But the California Guard, it didn’t end there. Because the California Guard, to be fair to them, did have an obligation to try to get this money back. So they went to Congress early on and said hey, we’ve got this problem. We’ve got all this debt that we’re supposed to recover, but many of these soldiers, you know, it’s not a great situation, we don’t want to have to go after all these soldiers who, in many cases, went to Iraq and were wounded. Would you guys put in a fix? And essentially waive the debts? This was in 2014. Congress sort of looked at it, and decided not to do anything. The third entity that failed was, frankly, the Pentagon, the larger overseeing entity, which is called the National Guard Bureau, which is supposed to oversee each state Guard organization. They knew all about this, and in fact, it was happening in other states, bonuses were given out improperly. But they view their job simply as they get a big check from Congress every year, they divide that check into 50 ways—53 ways, because Puerto Rico, etc.—and they send it off to the states, and do no oversight, and in fact, try to keep what happens at the Guard at arm’s length. So to me, there were three institutions that failed these soldiers at various points. And I think that’s the essence of the story, not fraud.
Nicco Mele: And were you surprised with the speed with which it got addressed once you brought it to light?
David Cloud: Stunned, stunned. I mean, it was, as I said, unlike any other story. And Bob and I have talked about why that is. I mean to some degree, it’s obviously a story that everyone can identify with. People who served their country, and then are the target of pretty heavy handed government intervention, or recoupment. That’s obviously something that people can quickly get outraged about, properly so. I also think—I say this, and I’m not quite sure whether it’s true—but I also think it has something to do with the state of our country at the moment, the very ideas that Trump has tapped into, which is unfairness and that the system is biased against ordinary people. Because that’s what was happening in this case. I mean it has nothing to do with Trump, although immediately, the number of page views we had was off the charts. People just went for this story like nothing I’ve ever seen. Nearly 3 million page views on the first day, after our first story. So it was stunning. But I do think it has something to do with those factors.
Nicco Mele: All right, Josh, we’d love to hear about your experience reporting out of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on the racial disparities in sentencing.
Josh Salman: Yeah, absolutely. How we were able to do this story is basically, we obtained a state database called the offender base transaction system, and it’s a massive databank, and what it does is it actually logs every criminal case in Florida, from arrest all the way through appeal. Now a lot of information was redacted, you couldn’t see the defendant’s name, you couldn’t see their Social, you know, certain information, we had to decode. Like the sentences, for instance. But basically, we had all this data, and what we wanted to do was just look at judges, and basically see, were they being fair, were they being consistent? At the time there was a lot of attention on what was happening in terms of policing and the racial divide. We’ve seen the protests, we’ve seen what happened in Ferguson or Baltimore. But there wasn’t a lot of reporting happening on the next level, OK? What happens after they’re cuffed, what happens now? And oftentimes, that can be a bigger issue, when you’re talking about years and years of someone’s life in a prison. We were able to go through these records, and basically analyze them. It was more than 80 million records that we went through over a 12-year period, and we came up with SQL queries and codes, and we were able to analyze them, county by county—all 67 counties in Florida—and see the disparities for things like felony drug possession, misdemeanor marijuana possession, armed robbery. We did the same thing for 500 or so judges in Florida. You can go online now and see the records, you can see their average sentences for six different crimes, and three broader groups of felonies.
When we were going through this, the first thing that stood out is there’s no consistency whatsoever. Judges in Tallahassee sentenced wildly different than judges in Miami. There were guidelines put in place to insure more consistency, but it clearly wasn’t working. But what we did see was no matter where you looked, whether it was Miami or Jacksonville, the one constant was African Americans were treated more harshly. In Florida they use a point system. So essentially, if I’m a criminal defendant, I’ll get a certain numeric score for the crime, which is usually based on the severity of the crime. Points can be added for things like, if I was wearing a ski mask, victim injuries, maybe if I was within 1,000 feet of a church or a school, all those aggregating factors will add points to your score, as well as your priors. So, let’s say you have three priors, you’ll get a certain score for each of those priors. And in Florida, the way the law works is, that score directly translates to your minimum punishment. And then the maximum punishment is capped by state statutes. So it gives judges this sort of window to operate, and what we found is even when two defendants scored the exact same points for the exact same crime, before the exact same judge, African Americans were treated far more severely. So that’s what we were able to do.
Nicco Mele: What surprised you most, or what challenge did you encounter that was really a surprise?
Josh Salman: Well the data itself was probably the biggest challenge, just getting our arms around that. And then I would say one of the biggest surprises, well maybe I shouldn’t say a surprise, but the pushback from judges was intense. That’s a very powerful group that operated in a lot of secrecy, and we shined a light on them that many did not like. They’ve been pretty combative in terms of the pushback. They put together 100 pages of material. A lot of it was just flat out lies, of why we shouldn’t be here today, so that’s been probably the biggest challenge right now.
Michael Siconolfi: You better hope that you’re never brought up on charges before any of those judges.
Josh Salman: Yeah, well, I’ve got to be careful about speeding. Right, exactly.
Nicco Mele: Your colleague last night, Emily Le Coz, talked about how you’re a small newsroom, and I think you’re the smallest newsroom among the finalists. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about what that’s like in a smaller market paper, to run a substantial investigation, a real commitment of resources.
Josh Salman: Yeah, we are certainly a smaller news organization. I think we have about 30 to 35 on our editorial staff, and that includes editors.
Michael Siconolfi: We count too. (Laughter)
Josh Salman: We have a three-member investigations team of myself, Emily, and our editor Michael Braga, and you know, for a small newspaper, they do a great job dedicating resources to investigative journalism. That’s honestly our priority. And it showed. I mean, the data alone was $15,000, and then you talk about salaries of three people—
Nicco Mele: You purchased the data from the government?
Josh Salman: From the government for $15,000, correct. So just that alone is a huge investment, and you don’t know A, if we’ll be able to crack the code to even see what it says, and B, if there’s even a story here.
Nicco Mele: It may say nothing.
Josh Salman: It may say nothing, right. So, that was a big investment. And then, basically dedicating three reporters to this project for an entire year, paying for travel, all those things. It was a huge investment. And I don’t think the story made us any money, or made us any friends.
Nicco Mele: What was the response in the community?
Josh Salman: Mixed. A lot of the community members really appreciated the work, but some of the judges sort of spurred a letter writing campaign and had all their friends write letters to the editor, attacking our work as well. So the response has been pretty mixed. But I think the people who don’t have a dog in the fight, they get it more.
Nicco Mele: And where do you go from here with this?
Josh Salman: So right now, a lot of the judges, one of their main defenses has been that, hey look, a lot of these are plea deals, right? The way the system is set up, around 90 percent I think are some type of plea, whether it be negotiated or an open plea in court. But they’re not going through an entire trial, right? Which can take months, or years, or whatever. The judges say, we’re just rubber-stamping these, this isn’t us, this was the prosecutors and that sort of thing. And largely our reporting showed that that’s not true, the judges have a lot of say in these pleas, but we’re also going to take them up on it. In the same OBTS system, there’s some stuff on prosecutors, and that’s where we’re going next. So we hope to look into the prosecutor’s role in the system and see if those biases lie there as well.
Michael Siconolfi: Just a quick question, the prosecutors are just suggesting what sentencing ought to be, but it’s the judges that make that final—
Josh Salman: Absolutely. Yes.
Michael Siconolfi: I don’t know how they can make the argument that it wasn’t their judgment that factored into it.
Josh Salman: Yeah no, absolutely. But they do have a point that every—whether it be police, prosecutors, public defenders—you do have a bias. And in one of our stories, we actually really focused on policing in Gainesville, and the war on drugs, and how that contributed to these wide discrepancies when they get before a judge. So the judges I think have a little bit of a point, in that they are not the only ones with this problem, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t do a story on their role in the problem, and now we’re going to expand it and look at the role of others, as well.
Nicco Mele: Because ultimately, it’s their job to sign off on the plea deals, right?
Josh Salman: Yeah, it’s their job to sign off, and judges often alter them if they’re not fair. So it was interesting—what we saw mostly was it wasn’t African Americans getting really long sentences, it was just that when there was an opportunity to show mercy, when there was an opportunity to be lenient, judges were lenient for white defendants, basically.
Nicco Mele: Wow. Sam, very different kind of story. Also data-driven in some sense. But I’d say pretty creative, too. I’m kind of curious how you got the idea, and then how you designed this investigation.
Sam Roe: Yeah. Two, three years ago, goes back a long way, I got a tip from a source saying that there were two popular drugs that were interacting in harmful ways, and I should look into it. And I started doing some research on drug interactions, and I liked the topic, but I wasn’t loving it. There weren’t a lot of investigative pieces on this topic, but it seemed like there had been—side effects, and bad drugs, and opioids. It seemed like a topic that I didn’t want to read about myself, you know? And that’s one thing we go into, how can you take this important public health issue and make it interesting, and make it innovative, and make it interesting to the reporters who are going to spend a lot of time on it? I started wondering, are there a lot of popular drugs out there that are interacting in dangerous ways that no one knows about, unbeknownst to anyone, causing problems?
That initially lead me to some scientists at Columbia University Medical Center, who were using data in entirely new ways, novel techniques, and I approached them, and I said, I have this idea, why don’t we team up and we’ll look for drug interactions that are causing sudden cardiac death? They really liked the idea, and over the next year or so, we collaborated, the Tribune and Columbia, to try to find new drug interactions, to try to discover drug interactions. This was a new concept for us at the Tribune, I mean usually we’re writing about bad people, bad lawyers and bad cops, bad guys. This was something different. The argument I was using all the time in the office was, investigative journalism doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to always be pointing out people doing wrong things. Why not discovering something? Why not finding a problem, an intractable problem, and going out there and fixing it, and solving it, and inventing new things? And we were able to do that at Columbia, in the end, through using their clinical records they had at Columbia Presbyterian, and enlisting the help of their cellular researchers. We were able to find four drug combinations, popular drugs, that caused this cardiac problem. And we got a great story out of it, and they got two papers out of it that were published in scientific journals.
I was really happy with how that turned out. But I recognized it wasn’t a story that was going to resonate with the public at large. And so, we started working on, how can we drive home that drug interactions are such an important issue in today’s world? People 60 and over, one in five are on multiple drugs. And that’s a lot. You know? Some people are on five or more drugs. And there’s no way you can predict how all these drugs are going to interact. There’s just too many drugs, there’s too many different drug combinations. So, we were interested in the pharmacists, because they are the last line of defense. And they get a lot of respect in the healthcare community, they get a lot of respect in general. If you ever look at polls about the most respected professions, journalists are way down here with trial lawyers, and televangelists, and mimes. (Laughter) But up here, you know, pharmacists. I don’t know if it’s the white coats, or what, but people really respect pharmacists. And we had a hypothesis that no one was really checking to see if they were doing a good job, especially with the emphasis on speed nowadays, drive thru service and 15 minute wait guarantees, those kinds of things.
We decided we wanted to go in, and we wanted to check to see if they could catch drug interactions that were dangerous. Because we wanted to build on the work that we did with Columbia, we wanted to make this really a scientific endeavor. We went out, and we tested 255 pharmacists with drug pairs walking in, it wasn’t as much undercover as what Shane did. But again, these were drugs that we weren’t going to end up taking, and we had a really strict protocol about how we were going to do things. We designed this study very carefully.
Nicco Mele: Did you design the study and the protocol in concert with Columbia? Or how did you—
Sam Roe: So we did consult with the leading experts in the country on drug interactions, a scientist at the University of Washington, and one at the University of Arizona. We did that upfront because we knew at the end of the day where we were going to potentially get pushback from the big companies, CVS and Walgreens. They weren’t going to roll over and admit that they were wrong, or change things, if this wasn’t scientifically sound. It couldn’t be half baked, it couldn’t be drive by. It had to be solid and above reproach. So they helped us pick out drug pairs. We ultimately picked out which drug pairs we were going to go in with and we designed the study, but we talked to all the experts, how if we’re going to do this, we want to do the best piece of science we can possibly do. It’s also journalism, but we also wanted to do science. How do we do that? And they helped us.
I was nervous at first, because when you first walk in, and Shane probably feels the same way, the first day, you’re sort of nervous about what might happen, because you don’t know, you have no idea what could possibly happen. You may not be prepared for something. I was surprised how little interaction there is when you go to the pharmacist. I mean, notice it next time you go in. It’s like ordering a Big Mac. You know? I’ll have a Big Mac and fries. OK, you know, $4, and you pay, and you’re out. And some of these pharmacists, really, they’re truly just like glorified vending machines. That’s what they are. Now some pharmacists did a great job, they come out and they warned us right away, hey, don’t take these two together, I’m going to have to call your doctor. But oftentimes there would be no interaction at all. You drop off the prescriptions and they say, “You going to wait?” “Yeah.” “OK, 15 minutes.” Pay by credit card and you’re gone. There was no interaction whatsoever. And no warning, and see, by law and by professional standards they’re supposed to stop and warn you.
Nicco Mele: I was kind of surprised that there weren’t automated triggers in the inventory systems.
Sam Roe: Oh there are. There are, they just ignore them. There’s a computer system that will flash, an alert will pop up red, saying this is a dangerous interaction. But, they can override those. They can just pass through them, they call them. So, there are systems in place, but there’s so many alerts that are fired off that there is alert fatigue. You see that in hospitals, nursing homes, and whatever. Same thing, car alarm goes off, it’s like oh God, I wish they’d shut that thing off. Meanwhile someone’s stealing a car, right? But because of our story, they’re changing a lot of that. So that’s another surprise. I was a little surprised that the companies were so quick to make changes. They could have fought us on it, they could have questioned our motives, our methods, and all that. But they didn’t. Partly, I think we got lucky. CVS, the number one chain in America, they performed the worst. And their main competitor, Walgreens, the number two chain in America, they performed the best. Still bad, but best. So when you have the number one—CVS in some ways, because of publicity, they almost had to do something. They couldn’t just say oh, well we’re not going to address this issue. So once they addressed the issue in meaningful ways, I think it almost forced the hand of the other companies.
Nicco Mele: Wow. And what surprised you most, you know, what challenges did you hit? What was the surprise in the course of your reporting?
Sam Roe: When working with the academics at Columbia—we’re not paying them. They don’t work for us, and then any time when you collaborate with scientists, they can walk away or move onto another job, or say they don’t like you, or change their mind. So I was concerned about that. I do think that journalists should collaborate more with each other, and with scientists, and people of like mind. But when you do that, you do run that risk. And the same when you go out and do a long-term testing program, and we did it over a year, things can go wrong the longer a story goes.
Nicco Mele: And where are you going to take this from here? You said that you started with a different kind of story, which is almost like a positive type investigation, and then you went to this. Are you thinking about a next stage?
Sam Roe: That’s a good question. I think investigative reporters run a couple different races. First we run this big marathon where we’re trying to find something, and then we finish the race, and we’re exhausted. But then we have to like, do a half marathon, we have to go in to do all these follow-up stories to make sure that things change. I mean, we all want to change the world. And it takes a lot of work after that. Then there’s like a smaller race, I don’t know, maybe it’s a walk, to make sure that people follow through on their promises. So we’ve had a lot of promises from drug makers, from the corporations out there, pharmacies, that they’re going to make these significant changes, and it’s up to us over the next year, as we transition to other topics, to go back and make sure they do what they promised to do.
Nicco Mele: Excellent. Michael—I’m going to ask you to repeat a little bit about what you said last night. Not only were you, in your team’s reporting, taking on, you could say, the cult of entrepreneurship in this country, but you were also investigating a company in which your owner had a fairly significant direct financial interest.
Michael Siconolfi: We didn’t know that when we started, I’ll say. (Laughter) We had the good fortune a couple of years ago to be here for our Medicare project, which was completely data-driven, with millions of billing records, and much like these other projects, it involved the analysis of that. The Theranos coverage, by contrast, was purely gumshoe type reporting, almost like what David was talking about earlier, in the sense that John Carreyrou, who is one of the best investigative journalists in the nation—we have the good fortune of having him—who worked on the Medicare project, had covered the health and science area for some time, and so he read a New Yorker piece in late 2014 about Elizabeth Holmes. This was this young, allegedly brilliant scientist who looked to revolutionize the blood lab industry by being able to, rather than by an intravenous draw that some people find painful, and problematic, just through a finger prick, through a single or a couple drops of blood, be able to determine a slew of medical issues. And she claimed to revolutionize the industry, and in fact, got great press, and she was on the cover of many of the leading magazines. John saw a passage in there when she was talking about the technical process by which they tested the blood, and was very skeptical, because it was all about state secrets, and one chemical reaction leading to another, and it just seemed almost nonsensical. And so, he filed it away, and sure enough, a couple weeks later, he got a tip from someone who knew someone who had worked there, senior position, and said that all wasn’t what it seemed.
Then John embarked on a 10-month reporting process. From the time he got the tip to the time we published the first word was 10 months, because what he had to do was just slowly build, again, like David was saying, source by source, trying to get people to talk about their experiences, and provide obviously documentation. We did file 15 public records requests as well, but largely this was source-driven. Shane mentioned nondisclosure agreements. Many of these former employees were burdened by these NDAs, which means you can’t speak about your experiences. But we talked to lawyers and realized that if fraud is involved, fraud trumps an NDA. So the pitch we were making to these people was look, if this is fraudulent activity, you can in fact speak to us and be protected. So a number of them did start opening up. But, the pressure that we received from Theranos, and Theranos had a very high profile board, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, I mean they’re a stack of Washington power players—and David Boies was the lawyer that was representing them. He of course handled the Gore v. Bush case, and was very high profile. He threatened repeatedly to sue us. Theranos sent its president to speak to John Carreyrou’s sources, and try to have them recant. They threatened to sue some of the sources. This is all before we wrote a single word. And they followed some of the sources as well.
Nicco Mele: There was a particularly painful episode in the reporting about George Shultz and his grandson.
Michael Siconolfi: Yeah, so Tyler Shultz, a young man who worked at Theranos for some time, his grandfather is George, the former Secretary of State who is on the board. And Tyler, smart young man who had gone to Stanford—they’re based right near the Stanford campus—realized soon after he got there that there were massive problems, so he detailed all these problems and in good faith, sent it to the CEO and other senior executives, and was completely shot down. So he went to his grandfather because he said, you know, this man has gone through decades of public service, including Watergate and other issues, and he’s 90-some years old. Tyler wanted to protect the legacy of his grandfather. So, he reached out to him and said, we’ve got these serious issues, please, only you can make something happen. And it was an incredible sort of morality play, where George decided he was going to side not with his grandson, but with the company. So it created a huge rift. Tyler was the first source to go to complain to state regulators, and so it’s rare that we end up writing about a source, but about a year after John started talking to Tyler, Tyler decided he wanted to go on the record. He said Theranos was claiming that we’re violating their trade secrets by writing about them, and one of Tyler’s memorable quotes was, “Fraud is not a trade secret.” He thought it was important to use his First Amendment rights, despite the fact that they were bullying him and threatening him, and putting all kinds of pressure through his grandfather.
John himself also got a lot of flack, and some personal animus against him. There was one meeting at Theranos in the cafeteria after one of the stories where everyone was getting worked up about the problems he was causing for the company, and a chant started, “Carreyrou, Carreyrou.” And then it morphed into, “F you, Carreyrou, F you, Carreyrou.” It caused a lot of issues for us, because we had to ensure that everything was completely precise. There were a couple of other interesting stories that developed out of it. One was just the human toll, which we thought was really important, and our colleague Chris Weaver wrote a really powerful piece about these patients who had gotten unreliable blood tests. Theranos ended up voiding tens of thousands of blood tests that they gave to people. And some of them really went through some agonizing moments. There was one 60-year-old woman who had had breast cancer, a double mastectomy, and chemotherapy. She was taking a Theranos test to test an estrogen-related hormone. And the results were off the charts, which could have indicated anything from a tumor to a recurrence of the cancer. She naturally freaked out, her doctors went to another lab, one of the more established labs. But it took some time to work it out, and she was for 10 agonizing days sweating it out. The results came back, and they were perfectly normal. Theranos at no point—at least for many, many months—did they reach out to any of these patients and tell them, “By the way, you should not rely on these blood tests, they’re unreliable.” John himself, as a matter of fact, had a blood test very early on in the reporting, and I think it was more than a year later, he got a form letter back saying oh, by the way, that blood test you took, you probably should disregard that.
And as Nicco was mentioning, one of the other interesting elements of it was, we discovered that Rupert Murdoch, our controlling shareholder, had invested more than $100 million in the company, and as a result of our reporting, it was basically marked down to zero. And so, we of course had to write this. This was one story that I was not going to get beaten on. No one else could write this story. (Laughter) So, that was pretty sensitive. But I have to say, we were very proud because we wrote that story and put that on the front page, and I think it indicated a level of journalistic independence that’s really extraordinary, and very much needed in this environment. There was immediate fallout, much like all the other great work here. The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services came in, and they found that the Theranos labs put patients in immediate jeopardy. All the labs have been closed down, they no longer do any of these tests, the CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, has been banned from the lab business for at least two years, she’s appealing it. The SEC is investigating, the Justice Department has a criminal investigation about the extent to which she mislead investors and patients about the efficacy of what they were doing. The FDA has stepped in as well and declared the nanotainer, which was the tiny vial that they used, an improper medical device. The fallout has been pretty extraordinary, and it continues.
Nicco Mele: And what challenges did you encounter that surprised you most in the course of this reporting?
Michael Siconolfi: I think there were a couple of things. When you are covering private companies, it’s very difficult to get data on them. While we did get some data through a public records request, and from a couple of the states that they operated in, [it’s] very difficult to get a lot of great documentation. The other [thing] that’s surprising is just the investors. Very sophisticated, high profile investors put a lot of money in a company based on faith, essentially. Because at no point did the company really show any of the investors, or anybody else for that matter, exactly what was going on. As a matter of fact, there was one inspection that the FDA conducted before we broke the stories, and the company created sort of a Potemkin village, where there was one part of the operation where they directed the FDA inspectors to, so they could see what looked like legitimate operations. And the rest of it was kept off limits for federal inspectors. So, there were a lot of elements to it that were surprising and interesting.
Nicco Mele: Unbelievable. Last but certainly not least, Danny Robbins, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, talk to us about this reporting, and I’m also going to ask you to just talk a little bit about the role computation played in your work.
Danny Robbins: Well, our project is, I think you’d have to say, very sophisticated data analysis, innovative data analysis, and some old school document reading, and very old, old school shoe leather, all wrapped into one thing. I should digress a little bit, our editor is here, Lois Norder, she is a woman, my colleague Carrie Teegardin is there, she’s a woman. They could be up here, make this panel more equitable. But yes, we would not think to do a national investigation of doctors and sex abuse itself, but somewhat ironically based on what Shane went through, it started with a prison story. A prison doctor in Georgia came from New York, and in New York, he had had several medical lapses, to put them mildly, in emergency rooms, and he had been slapped with a board order there that required very close monitoring. He came to Georgia, and got a medical license without any monitoring, and was immediately hired into the prison system, and I spent most of 2015 working on a series of stories about women who had died in his care. What happened from that was, I never could really get a good answer from the Georgia Medical Board. By law they don’t have to tell you why this happened, why was he allowed to practice without any monitoring, and in the prison system in a remote part of Georgia. And I started looking closer at the medical board, and the orders they were issuing for doctor misconduct, and frankly, just started reading. Starting at A, went to B, went to C, online. And before I was out of A, I found a doctor, William Almond, who had been drummed out of the military for sex with a patient. Had been accused of sexually molesting patients at the Augusta jail where he was the doctor, and then had come to the Atlanta area, charged with sexual battery, and he plead guilty to it, and still was practicing in metro Atlanta. So it kept going, B, C, D, with Lois, and we eventually came up with a spreadsheet of about 100 doctors in Georgia who had been disciplined for sexual misconduct in a certain period of time, and what we found was two out of three were allowed to continue practicing, or got their licenses back, for very serious things. And that was a key lead there, because you think a coach, a teacher, clergy, so many walks of life—would that person be allowed to come back into that field? Particularly with such intimacy with the people they deal with? And we started looking, was there anything done nationally? Is this a national issue? We couldn’t find anything. So we kind of tested it a little bit with some other states—you mentioned the data analysis, we wanted to see if we could get data from other—
Nicco Mele: Before we go to the data analysis, how did you decide to take this from a story about Georgia to a story about the nation? Was there a moment, or how did you make that decision?
Danny Robbins: I didn’t make it, it was a kind of a group thing. So much of what we do is focused on Atlanta and Georgia, and we joke about it. We constantly write the shame of Georgia on so many things. This was a national issue that hadn’t been touched, why don’t we look at it nationally? We got pushback from medical boards, “We can’t give you this data.” In Georgia, you can get a spreadsheet with all the doctors that are licensed in Georgia, and you can see the ones that have been on probation with a yes or a no. But you can’t tell, there’s no way to extrapolate from that, in the field, whether it’s sexual misconduct or drugs, or something like that. That led us to—can we do our own thinking on this? And that led us to scraping every website, collecting those documents, and then you’ve got 100,000 documents, you can’t possibly, really realistically do that. Machine learning allowed us to use certain keywords that we knew were in these orders. Boundary—that’s the thing—very serious matters are summarized in these orders as boundary training.
Nicco Mele: Boundary training?
Danny Robbins: Right. But that narrowed it down to 10,000 documents, and four of us, five of us, we just read these things. And that, I think, was the key breakthrough, because first of all, you read these things, and you realize just with the legalese in here, the public wouldn’t know what this stuff is. First you have to know where to look for it, and then when you read it, you really don’t get a semblance of what it is. So we would start reading these documents, and Carrie and I sat across from each other, and we would start to Google, or Nexis a certain jurisdiction and look for a civil case or a criminal case, and find that the real story went much deeper than this.
And of course, you don’t know the names of the victims from these medical board orders, so we started seeing things that looked serious, but were very abbreviated, were much more serious, and then the next piece of that was finding these people, finding victims, hoping, getting them to speak to us, finding police, cops, any nurses, people like that. And another key component to what we did was video. We felt that we needed to show this in a way that went beyond print. So, when we found people, victims or so forth, we worked to see if they would video, and we were very lucky in that regard—many of them did. Lots of people wouldn’t talk to us. And one other thing about this is—so many of these victims were not only extremely vulnerable people, because the doctors know what’s the problem—they know that vulnerability, and they prey on it. Then they get victimized again by the system that doesn’t want to believe them, or a doctor with a very high-powered lawyer that would focus in on those frailties. So, we tried to portray this system from stem to stern, and it took all those various components to put the stories together.
Nicco Mele: We have about 20 minutes left here, so I thought I can open it up to some questions from the audience. I personally am really inspired and delighted by—and, frankly, anxious and terrified—by the stories here from this panel today. Were there any questions from the audience?
Lois Norder: Lois Norder. I’m with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Shane and Sam, this is a topic that came up years ago, decades ago, as a journalist, as a reporter. I did undercover investigations and came to be persuaded we shouldn’t do them as news media, not because they didn’t result in truth, but because the public came to see the news media as not trustworthy, that we didn’t act with the degree of transparency that we demand of the people we write about. The news organizations I later worked for, and the one I work for now, put it off-limits. We couldn’t do undercover because we felt that it’s equally important to have the trust of our readers, and we knew that trust has become a huge issue for the news media. So, I’d like to know, from the panel, what kind of considerations go into thinking about how the public perceives how you have gone about your investigative work?
Shane Bauer: Speaking for me, and the process of Mother Jones—that was a big question for me before we published this story. In a sense, it felt kind of like a make-or-break moment. I knew the reporting was bulletproof, the story had been fact-checked into oblivion—but the question was how people are going to react to that aspect. And I was very surprised to find that we had, like, zero pushback. People loved it. I think that there’s a couple of factors that play into that. One is that I didn’t lie, doing this. I also didn’t go around telling everyone that I was a journalist. As far as readers, I never got the sense that that bothered anyone. And I think the reason is that people understand that this company—and this system, more broadly—is preventing us from looking at it. I get the sense that people do want reporters to not just—when an institution says no, then we just say, “OK. Thank you,” you know? I think that people appreciate pushing beyond that. And then the other part of that—for me, doing that kind of work, while I agree it’s true that I am being less transparent than I would in a traditional approach—I think it’s very important for anyone doing that work to counterbalance that with complete transparency with the reader. I think when you are actually being very transparent with the reader about your process, telling them what your ground rules were, how you went about it, how you played into the story yourself, people appreciate that, and I think it actually adds to trust. For me, in this story, part of that was writing about myself—I mean, I was a guard. That’s not a small thing. One of my rules in writing this story, for myself, was, whenever there was a moment that something came up that I felt like, “I don’t really want people to know that,” I wrote that thing, you know? And I think that that actually is a big issue that I think makes people distrust media, is the sense that the reporters themselves are not being upfront with them. I remember years ago, Robert Fisk wrote a piece about reporting in Iraq, and he said at that time, a lot of bureaus—it was very dangerous to go out, so they would basically have stringers coming and giving them information—and they would write up stories. And his point was, that’s fine, that’s the condition there, but you need to be writing that in your stories. You need to be telling us that that’s how you’re getting these stories. We need to know what your process is.
Sam Roe: With our story, we also meticulously discussed this at length for many, many months before we went out and did any test. And again, we didn’t lie or anything like that. We used our real names, and if anyone asked questions while we were doing testing at pharmacies, we answered the question honestly. How old are you? Where are you from? Have you ever taken this medication before? We would—but we didn’t have a lot of those questions. It was surprisingly very little interaction.
Nicco Mele: Did you have a doctor write the prescriptions?
Sam Roe: Yes. We did have a doctor write the prescription for us, and he was very valuable to the team, because we couldn’t have done it without him. I think what helped us to get a doctor to do that—first of all, he had a geriatric population, so he really cared about drug interactions, because he saw the dangers firsthand. But he also liked the work that we did with Columbia University, and he knew that we weren’t just coming in and we were going to do something that was half-baked, that we were doing this scientifically, and we wanted to do something that was going to be meaningful, lasting—we were going to change things. So he was on board with that. I think if you’re going to do undercover work, it really has to [have] two standards. One is that there’s no other way to get the information, OK? You have to do it this way. So, we wrestled with that, “Is there any other way?” There was no other data on how pharmacists perform. We had reason to believe that if we didn’t do the story, people would be harmed unnecessarily, and that really played into why did this, too. Secondly, it has to be meaningful, right? I don’t think you’d go undercover at 7/11 to see if kids are coming in with fake IDs. You wouldn’t do that, right? (Laughter) So, you’re balancing, you know. We’re taking a risk, we’re doing something that’s normally not done, but what’s the impact? Can we change the world? Can we save lives? And we thought we could by doing this.
Michael Siconolfi: Another element, I think, Lois, in this environment of “fake news” is—it is a balancing act, as has been discussed, but it’s also, again, the ultimate arbiter. You can say it’s fake. Well, no, I’m sorry. Shane was there. And Sam. They saw the interactions. So, it is, in some ways, a buffer against allegations. Because everyone’s denying and threatening and doing various things and you can cut through that. But I do think it has to be done judiciously, as we’ve discussed. Tony Horwitz, a great reporter at the Journal had done one where he worked at a chicken factory, and similar to Shane, he just applied using his name and his affiliation, and wrote about all the abuses in there. We usually shy away from it, though, because it’s difficult—you want to be transparent, and certainly to get into a place you can do that, but then, when you’re interacting with people, we always are expected to introduce ourselves as journalists for The Wall Street Journal, and this is what we’re doing. I’m not sure how, at this stage, we could get around that, but it’s a balancing act.
Shane Bauer: There was a great book that came out recently by Brooke Kroeger at NYU about undercover reporting. I think it’s just called Undercover Reporting, and it kind of shows the history in America. There’s a rich history of it, and there has been a period recently where it has not been happening as much, and she basically shows that the ethical standards of papers changed after the Food Lion case, in that it’s not coincidental that our idea of ethics around it also coincided with the fact that we were getting sued. But I think that climate might be changing.
From the audience: Hi, thank you for being here today. I’m part of the Harvard community. For those of us who are interested in pursuing a career in investigative journalism, what are some steps that you’d recommend to get our foot in the door?
Nicco Mele: Why don’t we start with Danny and David?
Danny Robbins: I don’t think you can technically start as an investigative journalist. I think that you just need to start as a reporter. I think all journalism is technically investigative—it should be, in nature. So, I would start somewhere as a reporter, learning, you know—cops, courts, so forth. Try to be as enterprising as possible. And, eventually, if you have a certain temperament to maybe take longer—it’s an evolution. I just don’t think you can start, but I think you start by being a good reporter and then evolving to that.
Nicco Mele: David or Josh?
David Cloud: I sort of shy away from that term a little bit. I mean, I think it’s a mindset of you’re going to sort of hold institutions accountable. So, if you think about journalism in that way, you are already an investigative reporter. Then it’s just a question of finding a way to do stories, and then an outlet that will publish them. There’s no magic formula. As all of us know, journalism is strange—you just have to announce that you are a journalist, and you are one. (Laughter) Particularly these days. (Laughter) Although, I say that, recognizing that the number of outlets that do this sort of accountability journalism is shrinking. Or, it has been shrinking. As someone alluded to, maybe the pendulum is swinging back, in that direction. I wish I could be more encouraging, or even offer you a specific place. But I think it’s more about mindset.
Josh Salman: One thing to add to that. I think being curious about the world and asking questions, and looking around just thinking—especially if things have been that way for a long time—“Well, why have they been that way?” And then just doing it. I can’t speak for other members of the panel, but for many of us in journalism—I started at a local paper. I was in grad school. I would report as best I could during the day at school, stay up at night, write the stories. It was ages ago—I’d slip the story underneath the door of the newspaper at 5:00 in the morning, and then get a couple hours’ sleep and just do it again. You’ve got to just go and do it. And it’s all around you. You have many outlets, and if there are any questions or interests that you’ve got and curiosities that you have, just start talking to people and write it up. It’s a pretty simple business.
Dan Hanrahan: Dan Hanrahan, I’m a student at the Kennedy School. Investigative reporting appears to have the biggest impact when it’s uncovering wrongs that are being perpetuated onto people. That usually leads to reactionary policies of trying to make people accountable or punishing people. In public policy, it’s usually better to be proactive at the front. So, in child protection, it’s a lot easier to bring about change after a tragedy or a child dies than to provide policies that invest early on in parenting classes, for example. How could you move investigative reporting towards more of those positive stories that Sam spoke about, so that you could have some Goldsmith winners that are more of those positive stories?
Sam Roe: That’s a tough one, because sometimes those stories don’t resonate with the public. If you have a tragedy, a child dies, something like that, people really respond to that. And then, when people respond, then the lawmakers respond, right? You guys all know this, right? There’s all sorts of stories that lawmakers work on for years and years. Nothing happens until some news organization writes about it. And then suddenly it rises to the top, and then they’re shamed into doing something. So, I don’t know. I mean, it’d be nice to be able to get together and fix problems before people are harmed, right? I think that’s sort of the goal—preventable death is what we are sort of all about. But it’s sad to think—I think you’re absolutely right—that sometimes it takes a tragedy in order for us to sell it to our news organization, or for the public to respond to it.
Michael Siconolfi: The other element—just working on building a story—that’s usually based on evidence. That’s usually based on events that happened or issues that have occurred, as opposed to being speculative. And, once again, in this environment, I think it’s even more acute in the sense that either speculating or analyzing or suggesting that something could happen can be fraught in how people would view it, as opposed to clear, hard evidence that indicates that this has gone on for some period of time, and put it in the proper context. It’s a difficult thing to do.
Shane Bauer: I mean, honestly, I don’t think that’s our job. I don’t think that our job is to write about people doing good jobs. You hear this with police all the time—why don’t you guys write about the good things we do? (Laughter) That’s just what you’re supposed to do. Our job’s not to congratulate you, you know? There are many problems in the world. There are many abuses of power. And I think our role is to get at that and hold it accountable. Other people can throw parties for police that don’t kill people. Sorry. (Laughter) I think, maybe if the world changes drastically enough that this isn’t the case, then maybe the role of journalist will change. But I think we’re far from that.
Robert McClure: I’m Robert McClure. I’m with InvestigateWest and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship, and I just have a mechanics question for Danny. It sounds like the hardest part was finding the victims, and how did you do that?
Danny Robbins: Many different ways. If a case is closed—many of these cases were getting to the criminal realm before they would get to a medical board—we’d trace it back to the criminal realm, and then you can request a district attorney’s file in a closed case, and we’d get the file and we’d read deeply into it and find stuff. Sometimes there would be a civil suit. Lots of different ways that we had to kind of get creative. We would look at a medical board order, and then you’d find a three-paragraph story, say, in The Washington Post, about the doctor, and then you’d go to the court in that jurisdiction—and many were online—and you would find it. The thing about it is, so many of these people were never publicized. And so, to go to them, and say, “Look”—that was one of the most gratifying things about it. Because many of these people would say, “He’s in jail, right?” “No.” And so, there were just a lot of different ways to do it, and they were there, you just had to look for it.
Michael Siconolfi: Just one additional element. When we were trying to track down patients—again, through social media and court documents—what we would do is, we would help, if they needed to, just to fill out a HIPAA form. That basically would allow us to be able to write about their medical information. And we’d send the HIPAA form to, in this instance, the company and say, “Look, this is a patient who has agreed to talk about it.” Because they would always hide behind say, “We can’t talk about any of the patients.” Well, now we’ve got some of these patients and they’re willing to do it. So, that’s one thing that we found very helpful.
Danny Robbins: There’s one other thing I want to add, too. Once we published our first series of stories in July, we had an email, for any victims to email us, and they came pouring in. We looked at a lot of those and ultimately wrote about several of those folks.
John: Hello, my name’s John, and I have a question that’s kind of related to what Lois, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asked about. I was fortunate enough to work as a very, very minor crew member on the movie Spotlight when it filmed here in Massachusetts. Obviously, locally we’re very proud of it and we’re glad it turned out so well. But I was wondering, A, what the national journalistic community’s take on it was and what you guys thought about it as investigative reporters and, B, as Lois said, has it affected the public’s perception of investigative journalism? Has it made your jobs any easier?
Michael Siconolfi: It was an interesting reaction. When I saw it, we were walking out and someone said, “God. Journalism is like watching paint dry.” (Laughter) Yeah. You know what’s fascinating? Journalistically, what I thought was really interesting about that, and inspiring, in addition to the great work that it took, was the fact that they had done stories previously, and they didn’t go anywhere. I think David was mentioning—was it the Sacramento Bee that had done some work? But you have to come back. You have to come back to things. Sometimes the timing isn’t right or sometimes you just haven’t just reached that point. I was just impressed by the fact that there was an issue that was in front of them that they sort of whiffed on, initially, because they didn’t realize it, and then they had the fortitude to come back at it.
Josh Salman: Yeah, we actually—at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, our editor, Michael Braga, gave us an afternoon off to go see the movie, sort of like a little team-building thing (Laughter) but it was very inspiring.
Nicco Mele: Josh, when you were closing your remarks earlier, I wanted to ask you, how do you resist despair when reporting a story that shows such overwhelming racism?
Josh Salman: Yeah. Certainly when you’re interviewing families, defendants, you always want to be sympathetic to them, because you’re dealing with another human, right? And we’re humans talking to humans. But especially given the climate now, we just really, really tried to concentrate hard on objectivity and let the data sort of speak for itself. Obviously, we had to do the boots-on-the-ground reporting and stuff, but we just really tried to walk that line.
Bill Greenfield: I’m Bill Greenfield, I’m with the Greenfield Foundation. My day job is as a community psychiatrist and, Sam, listening to your story, I’m feeling a little uncomfortable, and I’m realizing that—first of all, I deal constantly with a flow of papers and emails and calls—from insurance, from pharmacies—and they’re about drug interactions or various issues related to that. Almost all of them are simply like speed bumps. Maybe one in 20 is something like, “Oh, this is a real issue that I missed.” And when I think of drug interactions, that’s one of those things where it’s like, does anyone catch it along the way? Because usually I’ll try to check all the interactions, if it looks complicated. But there’s a problem in healthcare, generally—it’s like whack-a-mole—somebody will look at one place and they’ll say, “Oh, we’ll fix this problem.” And then, what happens is, it then generates a whole bunch of responses that make the whole system less and less and less functional. My impression is that over the years, there’s more and more and more stuff that’s intended to correct a problem, and what it really does is, it makes it less and less likely that you can address actual things. I’m not asking you to answer that, but I just want to put it out there for any thoughts or comments.
Sam Roe: No, no, I mean, that’s a great point. And other doctors and experts have made similar points. It gets to alert fatigue. The software at doctors’ office and pharmacies will throw off so many alerts on so many different things that healthcare providers, they’re not sure what they should do. So sometimes they just turn the machines off or they call the doctor’s office on all sorts of things. And there’s legal liabilities, you know. The reason the software’s like that is because they don’t want to get sued by not warning somebody. Part of the reaction from our piece is that the pharmacists are changing their software so they’re going to have more of a tiered system. They’re going to fire a lot of alerts, but it’s going to be based on ones they really need to call the doctor on. The hard halts, where they have to stop and call the doctor, are going to be meaningful, and they’re not going to be inundated with all sorts of meaningless—because that’s part of the problem, you’re right. As you know, the pharmacists are constantly calling the doctors, and the doctors aren’t returning the calls, and there’s a divide there, between the doctors and pharmacists. And hopefully the change in the computer system might ease some of those tensions.
Michael Siconolfi: On behalf of the panel, we appreciate the Greenfield Foundation’s participation in all of this. So, thank you.
Nicco Mele: Indeed. A big thank you, again, to the Greenfield family. Also to the staff of Shorenstein Center, especially Tim Bailey, for putting this all together. But I most especially want to thank the panelists and the journalists who worked on these stories, and their editors. I know that every single one of these stories took months, some of them years. And a lot of that can happen in relative obscurity. It is certainly not the most lucrative way you can spend your time. I do believe that your work is a public service, and a critical part of the health of our democracy. Thank you all for all of your incredible work. (Applause)