A panel discussion with the finalists and special citation awardees for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Panelists discussed the making of their stories, which include coverage of the Russia investigation, injustice in the Chicago legal system, opioid addiction, sexual harassment and assault, and other pressing issues. Panelists: Shannon Mullen, Staff Writer, Asbury Park Press; Melissa Segura, Investigative Reporter, BuzzFeed News; Carol Marbin Miller, Investigative Reporter, Miami Herald; Emily Steel, Reporter, The New York Times; Nina Martin, Reporter, ProPublica; David Armstrong, Senior Writer, STAT; Rosalind Helderman, Staff Writer, The Washington Post; Nicco Mele, Shorenstein Center Director (moderator).
Nicco Mele: Welcome to the 2018 Goldsmith Awards seminar. My name is Nicco Mele, and I’m director of the Shorenstein Center here at the Kennedy School. I have with me at this auspicious and long table all of the representatives from each of the finalists for this year’s Goldsmith Awards. These men and women are incredibly courageous journalists who I just profoundly admire, and I wonder if we could open by giving them a round of applause. (applause)
Before I introduce our guests and we get into a robust discussion on the state of investigative journalism in the United States today, a few housekeeping items. This is the appetizer, in some sense. At 6:00 p.m., join us downstairs in the Forum for the Goldsmith Awards ceremony where you will hear a little bit more about each of these stories. We will announce the winner of this year’s investigative reporting prize, and we will hear from Martha Raddatz, the recipient of this year’s Goldsmith Career Award. As always, you can text the word “center” to 41411 to receive updates on upcoming center events. Please join me in taking a moment to silence your mobile phones. We still encourage you to tweet. Our handle is @ShorensteinCtr, and the hashtag is #GoldsmithAwards. During the Q&A portion of the event, please identify yourself before asking your question. Students are given priority in the Q&A period. Just a reminder, the video and audio of this event is being recorded for an audio podcast for the Shorenstein Center. If you choose to participate in the discussion, you are presumed to consent to the use of your comments in the recordings and subsequent broadcast, and I would encourage all of you to go to iTunes or your podcast application of choice to download these discussions.
So now I’m just going to very briefly introduce our panelists. Each finalist has sent one representative from their team for today’s discussion. All the way to my right is Shannon Mullen, staff writer at the Asbury Park Press. Next to him is David Armstrong, senior writer at STAT; Melissa Segura, investigative reporter at Buzzfeed News; immediately to my right, Carol Marbin Miller, investigative reporter at the Miami Herald; immediately to my left, Nina Martin, reporter at ProPublica; next to Nina, Emily Steel of The New York Times; and last, but certainly not least, Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post. Let’s give them a warm welcome. (applause) I would just ask each panelist to go down the line and introduce yourself very quickly in a minute or two, give a brief synopsis of your story, and tell us how you got involved in the story. Rosalind?
Rosalind Helderman: I’m Rosalind Helderman with The Washington Post. I am the designated team member for a rather large team, including others who are in the audience, Greg Miller, Tom Hamburger, Ellen Nakashima, and quite a few who are not here as well, who have been working on the Russia story for The Washington Post. My involvement with that story began, actually, in the spring of 2016 while Donald Trump was running for president, and we started to see strange patterns out of his campaign—the strange warmth he showed on the campaign trail when talking about Vladimir Putin, the people he was putting on his campaign team who had strange business ties, personal ties, to Russia and that part of the world. So, it’s been sort of a long journey, and the amount of things that we have learned through Washington Post reporting, and through reporting done by some of our competitors as well, has been sort of astounding since then.
Emily Steel: Hi, my name is Emily Steel. I’m a reporter at The New York Times. I am here to represent our paper’s coverage of issues of sexual harassment and other misconduct. It started as story back in the summer of 2016. Gretchen Carlson was a former anchor at Fox News, and she sued Roger Ailes, the former chairman of that network. And with that story, with that lawsuit, there burst into public view this issue of sexual harassment and this scandal at the network. There was this flurry of media coverage, and in August of 2016 we had a meeting with my editor who’s here, some other editors at the Times, and Dean Baquet, the top editor at The New York Times, to think how could we look into this story, how could we move this story forward, what more could we find.
Dean had remembered back from his days when he was the editor of the Los Angeles Times, this case with Bill O’Reilly where one of the young producers on his show sued him for sexual harassment. It was this big public scandal, this big, big, big story, but then she kind of disappeared. She had a settlement. Dean had remembered that maybe there had been tapes. He thought why not look back at that story with the perspective of what we knew today and figure out what that said about issues of harassment, how people at Fox News were treated, whether that case had a chilling effect? So, Mike Schmidt and I—he’s here in the audience—we were paired up, and we really started digging to try to recreate that October 2004 story with the knowledge of what we now knew. And within the course of a number of weeks, we found that the story was much bigger and that there were a number of settlements involving allegations of sexual harassment against Bill O’Reilly. That story published in April of last year, 2017. In the months that followed, The Times made a huge commitment to reporting on this issue. My colleagues Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey did the big investigation into Harvey Weinstein, which really opened the floodgates.
Nina Martin: My name is Nina Martin. I’m here to represent ProPublica and NPR on the project that we worked on last year, which looked at maternal mortality in the U.S. and severe maternal complications. The project began for me, in some ways, in 2000 when my sister gave birth in Texas, and she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, but she nearly died. And I remembered the trauma of that over the years. It was a huge event that consumed two to three weeks of our family’s life and then just kind of faded, but it always kind of struck me because she had been told that this kind of thing never happened to anyone, that she was the only one.
Flash forward a number of years, I joined ProPublica in 2013 as their sex and gender reporter, and I always had a very strong interest in women’s health and maternal health in particular. And we were looking for a project in about 2016, and I had found some interesting things around C-sections and took it to my editors and said, “Well, I could do a really interesting project, and it would take about a year.” Robin Fields, who’s our managing editor, said, “Well, no, why don’t you just take on maternal mortality, go big?” So we did, but, actually, we thought that the numbers were really around maternal complications, so that’s where we expected our project would mostly focus. And then, as we started digging into maternal deaths, we realized that there’s surprisingly little written about them and that that would be a really good way to begin our project.
The project took a huge, important turn about a year ago when NPR came onboard. Renee Montagne is in the audience, and then, again, right around that time when jointly with NPR we launched a call-out for stories with Adriana Gallardo, who’s here as well, from ProPublica. She managed that and has been the third major reporter on this project. In the course of a weekend, we got 2,000 stories, and since then we’ve received 5,000 stories, mostly from women themselves and also from family members and friends of women who died or nearly died. So, we knew at that point that we had something big, and we started to follow it.
Carol Marbin Miller: My name is Carol Marbin Miller. I’m a senior investigative reporter with the Miami Herald. In the summer of 2015, I was in between projects when a youth at the Miami Detention Center died, and that interested me because I had written about deaths there before many times, and I wanted to figure out what had happened to this young man, Elord Revolte, who was a Haitian minor. In calling sources, a couple of them said, “Well, have you heard of this thing called honey-bunning, and I was floored. “No, what’s honey-bunning?” It was not a well-kept secret within the field, but no one else really had heard about it. And what it was was guards and youth workers offering kids rewards to beat up other kids because the youth workers didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They didn’t want to face discipline. They didn’t want to get fired. And over time, it had become this really deadly practice. In getting started, we found out that another kid had died right around the same time. He had been a goon in the Miami lock-up, and he was beating up other kids for guards. He got out. He was trying to turn his life around when one of the kids he beat up recognized him and shot him eight times on a street corner in Miami. After two years of looking at this with Audra Burch, who had been my writing partner, we ended up writing about all kinds of terrible things: widespread, excessive, and unnecessary force, sexual misconduct, cover-ups of all variety that had been going on for a decade or more. So far, the results have been pretty good. We’re seeing some reform in Florida as a consequence of it.
Melissa Segura: Good afternoon. My name is Melissa Segura, investigative reporter with Buzzfeed News, and I’m fortunate to be accompanied today by our lead editor, Mark Schoofs, who’s in the back, and also the project editor, Jessica Garrison. In January 2015, I was unemployed. I had been let go by Sports Illustrated in mass layoffs, and I didn’t know what I was going to do next. So, I did what everybody does when they don’t what they’re going to do next, and I was applying to law school. (laughter) I had been scrolling through Twitter one day, and I came across a posting that said that Buzzfeed had recognized that investigative reporting was overwhelmingly white and male—I am neither of those things—and they were looking to diversify their ranks. They were offering one year of benefits—health insurance is always a strong motivation—and they said that you could investigate this project for a year. I thought, “This is great. I’ll go to law school. Everything will be terrific.” Obviously, that story did not turn out that way, did it?
When I was a reporter at Sports Illustrated, I had been working on a story about a college football player who had been wrongly accused of a crime and was going to try and reclaim his NFL career. I had done a nice feature on him, but there was one question that his attorney who represented him—this question nagged at me for years—and that’s that, in the course of the conversation, he said, “Look, I live in San Diego, and I’ve been working on this case out of Chicago for the last 20 years on my own time, at my own expense.” At the time, I was really naïve. I didn’t realize how long a wrongful conviction took to overturn. I was very naïve. And I just kept thinking, “What in the world would motivate somebody to spend 20 years working on a single case?” And that’s because, of course, he thought that this particular woman was innocent.
So, I presented that particular project, and we were going to work on a wrongful conviction story for Buzzfeed News. And it turned out that the particular detective at the heart of this one case, as I started to just Google around, had been accused of multiple [wrongful convictions]. I would see postings on really old union board websites, or mentioned in a few civil suits, but nobody had really put together the pieces. And as I started working on this one particular case, I found that this detective and his partner were linked to more than 50 allegations of wrongful convictions. So, I just kept pulling at this thread, and that resulted in a multi-part project with Buzzfeed where we exposed the methodology by which not only this detective operated by the way in which the fail-safes within the criminal justice system repeatedly failed. And as of today, seven men have walked free from prison as a result of the investigation.
David Armstrong: Hi, my name is David Armstrong, and I’m here representing STAT as well as my colleague in this reporting endeavor, Evan Allen, from The Boston Globe, and also our editor on the project, Gideon Gil, who’s here as well. This project grew out of reporting on the opioid epidemic in 2016, and, in spending the year reporting on that issue, we came across a lot of people who were really frustrated by their inability to find quality treatment for loved ones who were suffering from this disease and, more troubling, talked to a lot of people who had loved ones who ended up going to out-of-state treatment facilities and dying.
So, we decided last year that we would look into what’s happening here, and what we discovered was that there was a flourishing network of patient brokers, often people in recovery themselves, who were paid by, really substandard, exploitative treatment centers to get bodies down to places like Florida, California, Arizona, Texas. They were paid basically a per-head fee to get people who were desperate for treatment—get them on a plane, and, once they got there successfully, they were paid. And these people were dying in these places. They would get really lousy treatment. There was insurance fraud involved, and once the insurance benefits expired, people were kicked to the curb. So, they were dying in seedy hotel rooms or on the street, and this led us into a broader look at the profiteering that goes on in this industry, which is really shockingly lacking in standards and approaches for successful treatment. We looked at some high-end treatment facilities that were not doing a great job, and we also looked at the exploitation of people desperately seeking treatment in the entertainment world, in particular, on talk shows. As a result of our stories, there are some investigations underway—the attorney general, some federal people looking at these patient brokers, this whole system of exploiting people who are desperate for treatment.
Shannon Mullen: Hi, I’m Shannon Mullen. I’m representing the Asbury Park Press for a project that we did called “Renter Hell.” I worked with Payton Guion, who’s with me here today, and this project really looked at the disconnect in New Jersey: on the one hand, New Jersey is supposedly one of the most pro-renter, pro-tenant states in the United States. They’re really at the forefront of tenant protections. There’s an anti-eviction law. There’s judicial process for evictions, and there is what we were told were maybe the most rigorous inspection standards in the country. And that just completely didn’t stand up to what Payton and I were observing in communities around New Jersey where the quality of the rental housing was just atrocious, no heat, no electricity, apartment buildings that had been overrun by drug dealers on the ground floor. People were afraid to come out of their apartments—and rats.
But we didn’t set out to do this. The genesis for this was—I happened to be working a breaking news shift, and there was a report of an apartment explosion in our home city of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore. What had happened was one of the tenants there had gotten a call at work from his wife, and they had been battling cockroaches in this apartment for some time. They were a young Haitian couple with a two-year-old son, and on this particular day she had really hit her limit as far as what she was able to endure and called him at work and basically said, “Hey, you’ve got to do something. I mean, this is just getting out of control.” On his way home, he picked up a couple of cans of Raid or some kind of insecticide and very liberally sprayed his apartment. There was an open window to let in some fresh air. There was a spark on the pilot light of the couple’s stove, and those fumes that had built up detonated, literally detonated. There was no fire, but there was a terrific explosion that ripped the door off its hinges and blew out the windows, which turned out to be made of plastic. And miraculously, this young family survived, so it was really just a breaking news story. I reported it. What got my interest was in talking to the firefighters who responded and who gave me this narrative was that the cockroaches survived. (laughter) You know, if any of them were even bothered by the explosion, it was not evident. These hardened firefighters went into this building, and they were just completely grossed out because the entire building was crawling with cockroaches.
And, you know, I guess I’ve led a sheltered life. I haven’t lived anywhere that’s had a lot of cockroaches. It really got my attention, but, really, at that point we thought we were dealing with a local story. But in short order, Payton started to work with me, and we realized that this was not as unusual of an event as it may sound, as horrible as that is, and that really got us on more of a statewide look at rental housing. The takeaway for us was that, if this is what it’s like in New Jersey, which supposedly has these great tenant protections, what’s going on in the rest of the country? Among other things, we found out that, despite tenants having all these rights, if they try to exercise those rights in landlord-tenant court they are routinely nowadays—not just in New Jersey but around the country—blacklisted. When you apply for an apartment, they run a credit check, but now also, as a part of that normal process, you have to pay for another search, which is a search of landlord-tenant proceedings. And there are companies out there who will run your name through a database, and it doesn’t matter if you were in court trying to exercise your rights as a tenant to hold, maybe, a negligent landlord accountable and that you might have even prevailed and gotten some action. That doesn’t matter. As long as there’s a hit on your name, tenants are routinely denied an apartment on the basis of that. So, it quickly mushroomed into something Payton and I didn’t expect, and the picture that we saw was quite disturbing.
Nicco Mele: This is just an incredible range of reporting and range of outlets here that speaks to the diversity and power of the press today, from the Asbury Park Press, a local outlet in New Jersey, to national outlets like The New York Times, to nonprofit reporting like ProPublica, to digital outlets like Buzzfeed News. It’s really quite exceptional, and a range of stories, too, but ultimately all of them about, I would say, systemic injustice in public policy. I want to start by asking Nina Martin to tell us a little bit more about how you managed to investigate this story given that there are no records of mothers who died in childbirth in the United States.
Nina Martin: Well, at ProPublica, I should say, we have a bias toward data, so we were a little bit dismayed, I think, beginning to realize that there really wasn’t very much data about this issue at all. Many states don’t even have maternal mortality review committees that count and analyze maternal deaths, and when they do, the data that they have is de-identified. So they know the kinds of traits about a woman, you can break that data down into the age and the race and the body mass index and how many C-sections she’s had, but they know very little about who she was and know very little about her life and her doctors and the hospitals and so forth, so it’s a very incomplete picture of what led to her death.
The data around severe maternal complications is even worse. The numbers are huge, but very often the data is just really not collected by hospitals in any systematic way, much less state committees. Only now states are trying to look at and count severe maternal complications, so I did what everybody does. You start out by doing LexisNexis searches, and I was really surprised, a little bit, to find out how few maternal deaths I was finding. I wasn’t finding very many cases of severe maternal morbidity, either, reported in news stories. I was finding those mainly in private chat groups, on parenting websites and also on Facebook, usually closed groups on Facebook.
We had a three-part plan, I would say. The first was, I really wanted to understand the scope of the issue, so I started stalking people on Facebook, women who had nearly died across a whole range of complications, of a whole range of parts of the country, of all races, to hear their stories and to really try to find common themes, because what I was hearing from researchers was that they just never talked to them. So that was the first thing. I found a lot of commonalities, and then I started looking for maternal deaths. I started putting them in spreadsheets, and I was finding, one, that I wasn’t finding many of them, and, two, when I was finding them, they were not fitting the stereotypes that we had about who was dying, the stereotypes being that they’re mostly going to be poor women of color who don’t have access to go to prenatal and postpartum care, who live in certain parts of the country, maybe rural areas, maybe poorer parts of the South. What I was finding were people who—I was finding a lot of doctors and lawyers and nurses—I found the spokeswoman for Yellowstone National Park had recently died, a woman who had actually founded a parenting YouTube blog. As I was looking at these cases, though, I was noticing that when they were reported in the press, they often were reported as human interest stories and also to kind of build support in the community for GoFundMe. So, I thought, “Oh, GoFundMe,” and so that’s what I started to do.
Nicco Mele: Just describe it for us briefly?
Nina Martin: GoFundMe is a crowd-funding site that, I think, has become sort of a repository of all human misery in the United States over the last few years. It barely existed, I want to say, five years ago. It’s now hard to find a tragedy that doesn’t have a GoFundMe or a YouCaring campaign, one of those crowd-funding sites. The thing about these databases is that they’re not meant to be searched, and there’s no consistency. We actually appealed early on to the folks at GoFundMe to please help us locate these, and they basically shut us down and were not interested at all. And I think, in fact, they made it harder to search. So for months, basically, I went through and tried every possible combination of keywords that I could think of over and over and over and over again, and we also used Facebook. There’s a tool for journalists called Facebook Signal that turned out to be really helpful in keeping track of deaths that had recently occurred, and we built the database that way. And then, the third way we got some names was in this call-out that we posted with NPR asking for stories of women who had died or nearly died.
Nicco Mele: And you did mention that the pattern of deaths didn’t really fit stereotypes, but, nevertheless, racial disparities in maternal health were a pretty central part of the story. I wondered if you could just tell us a little about Shalon Irving and why her death was so striking?
Nina Martin: Shalon Irving is a woman I found on GoFundMe, and I remember I called Renee, actually, when I found her. It was early in January, and I sent her a link or I called her up, and I said, “Can you take a look at this? Does it say what I think it says? Is this a CDC researcher who died?” And Renee, as I recall, you looked at it and said, “Yes.” So we immediately reached out to her family, and because it had happened so recently, I was able to jump on a plane and go to her funeral. Her funeral happened the exact weekend that we launched our call-out for stories, so I was on a plane trying to think about what I was going to say to this family when I met them. And what I basically said was, “Hello, I’m sorry for your loss. If it’s okay with you, I’ll be in touch with you over the next year.” I didn’t try to do reporting while I was there.
Shalon Irving was an amazing woman. She was African American. She was in her mid-thirties. She was a CDC researcher who studied racial disparities, and she was brilliant. She graduated summa cum laude from every program she went to. She had multiple fellowships. She had multiple degrees. She had a dual PhD, in fact, in sociology and gerontology. She taught at a number of universities. She knew her health very well. She understood the topic of racial disparities really well. She understood that she was at risk for certain kinds of issues. She had had a series of health complications and then had become pregnant as a single mother, so she knew the risk factors for a single black woman, even a professional woman who worked for the CDC, even in a place like Atlanta. So, she put together this village of family and friends, a really devoted mother who herself is an amazing woman with many degrees, and she gave birth. And the birth went better than maybe a lot of people might have expected, given some of her potential risk factors. And then, three weeks after that, she died because people weren’t paying very good attention—her doctors and nurses, her health care providers—during the postpartum period.
And that’s one of the things that we really discovered during this project was that the greatest risks for many women are not in pregnancy and childbirth, although there are many risks in those periods, but during the postpartum period when they’re at home with a baby and some instructions about how to take care of their baby and very little about how to take care of themselves. As it has evolved over the last 50 to 60 years, our medical system, our maternal care system, even in this country, has really come to focus more on the health and the safety of fetuses and babies, not of the mothers, and the mothers have really been forgotten and abandoned. And Shalon Irving, despite all the steps that she took to protect herself, despite everything she knew about how to take care of herself, ended up dying.
Nicco Mele: But your reporting helps to give her memory some justice.
Carol, speaking of mothers, I have to say I think your reporting was among the hardest to read for the sheer brutality of it. The visual presentation on the Miami Herald website carries video clips from security cameras that really bring home how dystopian these juvenile detention centers are. And I wondered what was it like interacting with the families of these children, with their mothers.
Carol Marbin Miller: The first problem we had was connecting with those families. We understood that some of these kids were difficult kids. Some of them were not. Some were there for joy-riding in a relative’s car, but some of these kids had committed serious offenses and needed to be under some sort of supervision. That said, none of them deserved the sort of brutality that we wrote about. We found a way to contact family members despite the fact that the documents we obtained were heavily redacted and did not include any material on how to identify these kids. But we had some sources on the inside who were able to get into other databases and give us names and phone numbers of family members.
But from the very beginning some of these parents were very reluctant to talk. The kids who had been the victims of sexual misconduct, by which I mean rape, were very hesitant to talk openly. The kids would not talk at all, and that was true almost across the board, though we got lucky. There were some families who were very eager to talk. One of the things that we did was we leveraged relationships that we had within some institutions. The public defenders in south Florida included some sources that I had known for many years, and they were very eager to help us. They would contact parents on our behalf. They set up some interviews. Several of these interviews were held in the public defenders’ offices, and the lawyers were there almost literally holding the hands of moms and dads, even kids, and encouraging them to talk. The parents were traumatized almost as much as the kids.
If you go and look at the series, there’s a surveillance video of a 14-year-old kid, not a big kid. He was small in stature, kind of meek. He had been abused and neglected as a child. He had been adopted out of foster care and then returned like an unwanted shelter puppy, and this kid ends up in the lockup in Broward County, Fort Lauderdale, on a joy-riding charge. A guard says to him, “When that kid over there is bothering you, you beat him. You pummel that kid if he’s bothering you.” And Andrew is his name. He said, “No, no, I’m not going to do that,” and the guard hauls off and whales on him and breaks his nose in two places. We obtained that video under Florida’s very generous public records act, and we showed it to this child’s adoptive father, who was horrified. The dual videos—the surveillance video and our reel of the father reacting to it—were very powerful. The dad cried. This was a guy who was a fighter. He had served in the Israeli Army, had seen quite a few things in his lifetime, but the sight of this 14-year-old being pummeled by a guard was really more than he could handle.
We knew going into the series that it would rise or fall on our ability to locate families and kids and persuade them to talk with us, and that was an ongoing battle throughout the two years that we worked on this thing. We won some of those battles, and we lost a few. We had moments where we thought we had persuaded family members to open up to us, and then, at the last minute, they would vanish and would stop returning calls or just say, “No, not going to do it.” But I think we ended up persuading just enough to put flesh and blood on these kids because most of them, they weren’t bad kids. There were no murderers that we interviewed. I don’t believe there were any kids there for rape, and the challenge for us was to portray these kids as our kids—you know, they could have been the children of any one of us—and to get our readers to invest in them and invest in bringing humanity back to these juvenile justice centers.
Nicco Mele: You know, I just finished reading Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson about the Attica prison uprising, and it was kind of shocking to me, some of the parallels, like how brutal the system is and how little it seems to have changed in some sense. And yet, in Attica Prison, you’re dealing with adults. In your story, you’re dealing with kids, and one of the most shocking revelations in your story was that some of the correctional officers fired from adult prisons, for inappropriate behavior, for abuse, for violence, then were employed almost immediately at juvenile detention centers.
Carol Marbin Miller: We had one case that interested me a great deal in which a female officer had been raping a boy in a youth prison. And when we set about backgrounding her, we discovered that she had been fired not far in the past from an adult forensic facility, a mental health facility for adult prisoners, for having a sexual relationship with an inmate there. And there were two or three others. There was a guy who was fired by a group home for disabled people for pummeling a developmentally disabled man, who was hired to work at a youth prison literally while he was on probation for a battery charge. And after seeing that occur two or three times, my boss and I kind of looked at each other and said, “Hmm, I wonder if there’s a pattern there.” And we went to the data.
We obtained a database from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which contained decertification records from prison guards and law enforcement officers, and we married that data with hiring records from the Department of Juvenile Justice. And we discovered that the state juvenile justice system was sprinkled throughout with adult prison guards who had been fired for wrongdoing, or police officers who had been fired for sexual harassment or excessive force, and then welcomed with open arms to work with vulnerable kids. And this was really the reform that happened almost immediately, even before we published. The Department of Juvenile Justice issued a memo that said, “Effective immediately, we’re going to pull the records that the Miami Herald pulled.” I mean, these records were all hiding in plain sight. They were personnel records from sister agencies that were all public record. We obtained them easily, and Juvenile Justice never bothered, but they do now.
Nicco Mele: Wow.
Shannon, one of the incredible things about your reporting that I’ve been dying to ask is how you managed to untangle all the layers of LLCs and shell companies that slumlords use to hide their identities.
Shannon Mullen: Really, Payton did that. We were talking about it this afternoon, and that was one of the many moments where we kind of looked at each other and were like, “Are you kidding me? Really?” One of the problems we encountered in communities all over New Jersey is that many of the landlords are LLCs, which are very difficult, if almost impossible, for us anyway, to penetrate who the actual owners and investors are. And that makes it difficult on a local level because when you issue a summons or a violation notice, it goes to the LLC, and often it goes to a mail drop. Payton spent several days in court, and in one case after another LLCs were just no-shows.
So, the system sort of breaks down at that point, but in one instance Payton really built his own database and was looking at common addresses, and he was able to find that a lot of the properties that we were interested in had the same mailing address, which turned out to be a beeper store, if you can believe that. I don’t know what the headline should have been, that there’s still a beeper store in New Jersey. (laughter) And, wow, that was interesting. Then, Payton kept broadening the database and, in the end, found 300 different rental property owners who all had the same mail drop at this beeper store. We went to the beeper store, and they didn’t appear to have any beepers for sale. I don’t know. (laughter) Really, it was just befuddling, and we weren’t able to figure out what was really going on there. Subsequent to our story being published, a completely separate investigation indicted and arrested the owner of that beeper store for laundering money. In addition to servicing their beeper needs, they were also wiring money overseas and hiding funds that way, but it’s very difficult to know who the actors really are, who the responsible parties really are.
Nicco Mele: How big is your newsroom?
Shannon Mullen: We have about 20 reporters right now. We’re part of the Gannett chain, and there’s a number of Gannett newspapers in New Jersey. So, often, we do leverage those other papers and work together.
Nicco Mele: What was the hardest part about reporting this story?
Shannon Mullen: There really was so little record—so I’m interested to hear the other reporters talk about the records that are so important to their stories. And that was a real problem. Most of the rental properties in New Jersey are concentrated in urban areas, and when we went to those cities they had no idea how many rental properties they had. I suppose they could look at census estimates or kind of ballpark it, but they wouldn’t know where those rental properties were. Again, there’s a law on the books in New Jersey that if you own a rental property you’re supposed to register your property with the local municipality, and that really starts the inspection regime going. But landlords weren’t bothering to do that, and even in cities that were collecting that information, these were paper records in a file cabinet, so it really bedeviled us throughout our project.
Nicco Mele: Changing gears a bit, Rosalind, what is it like reporting on Russia in the nation’s capital in the current political environment? (laughter) That’s a little open-ended.
Rosalind Helderman: Well, it’s interesting listening to all of this, and I feel at something of a disadvantage because so much of the reporting that we’ve done on this story involves very much the old-fashioned working with human intelligence, if you will—our beat reporters working with long-term sources, meeting new sources, and getting them to tell us things that they are not supposed to be telling us. And there are some very powerful people, one particularly powerful person who does not want to see this reporting happen and is very vocal about that. (laughter)
So the amount that I can reveal about the reporting that has gone into our stories is at this point—and maybe forever, but certainly while it is still ongoing—extremely limited. We’ve had some amazing experiences, lots of meetings where you put your phone in this bag that’s supposed to shield the phone and lots of fun, crazy things, but none of which I’m going to be able to tell you about today, unfortunately. (laughter) You know, these are strange times in the nation’s capital, and I think reporters, no matter what you do, are dealing with the reflection of the president’s claiming that everything you do is fake news and undermining what we do. Our editor, Marty Baron, the former editor of The Boston Globe, talks about this quite a bit and he’s asked about it quite a bit. I think the president has said that he feels as though the media is at war with the administration. And [Marty Baron’s] response to that is, “We’re not at war. We’re at work.” And I think what he means by that is that the best response is just to put our noses to the grindstone and keep doing the work day in and day out to sort of keep trying to report accurately and fairly.
I do think that we are extraordinarily aware of the stakes and of the stakes of mistakes. That’s something we talk about a great deal. When there have been errors made on this story, and there have been some, those are exploited tremendously by people who don’t want to see the reporting done at all. So, we’re very aware of that and take it into account while certainly trying not to let it force us to be overly cautious—but we are cautious. And I don’t know that I think that’s a terrible thing. I think the stakes are high no matter what you do. I think all of the reporting that everyone else has done here, too, the stakes would be extraordinarily high as well. They might just not earn you a tweet from a certain, you know, special reader. (laughter)
Nicco Mele: Has anything about the environment of your reporting changed? Are sources more or less willing to talk? How have things evolved, I guess?
Rosalind Helderman: I think you’ve seen some of both. I do think official Washington, long-term career employees who make the government run, particularly as the administration began, there were more of those people who were interested in talking about what they were seeing changing in their agencies and their departments. And you pair that with the fact that this White House, in particular, is a leaky White House. I think I’ve never seen an environment where the White House itself was so interested in talking at times to get out not the White House’s narrative but their own personal narrative in these crazy internal rivalries that you see. On the other hand, there’s certainly fear, and I think particularly people who have knowledge of this topic are very wary of the environment, and they understand the stakes as well.
Nicco Mele: Has the credibility of your sources and their leaks become an issue, or more of an issue?
Rosalind Helderman: Yes. I mean, the credibility of people involved in this story has been a tremendous issue, I think, from the very start when my colleagues were first reporting on Michael Flynn. It became public fairly rapidly that he had spoken with the Russian ambassador during the transition period, and then Sean Spicer and others and the Vice President of the United States came out very publicly to say that those conversations were nothing special, that they were condolence calls for the recent Russian airplane that had crashed, and they were holiday greetings. And when my colleagues went to General Flynn for the first time and asked him, “Did you talk about sanctions?” he said, “No,” the National Security Advisor of the United States. He’d already said no to the FBI, and he said no to Washington Post reporters. And it was only when it became clear that our reporters understood that there were intercepts that proved otherwise, did he kind of come back and say, well, he doesn’t quite remember. Maybe it could have come up.
Nicco Mele: Turning to David Armstrong now, I was particularly struck by one of your sources, Daniel Cleggett, who so blatantly lied, and I just wondered what was it like dealing with these brokers and dealing with sources that you just cannot trust at all.
David Armstrong: Well, that was a big issue for us.
Nicco Mele: Could you tell us a little bit about Daniel?
David Armstrong: So, Daniel Cleggett is a person who’s in recovery for drug abuse himself, and he has started a business of his own to treat people in need of addiction treatment services. But what he also does is patient broker. He’s very much tapped into the recovery community, which is really where we learned of what was going on here, and he was sending people out of state for treatment at places where people were dying, and he knew this. And he did lie to us, as many others did as well. A lot of the people we were writing about were deceased. They had unfortunately died from trying to get treatment, but through their families, as we eventually gained their trust, we were able to get things like their phones. In fact, one very dogged, persistent aunt of a young man who died from Boston sat outside the Delray Beach Florida Police Department for an entire weekend until they relented and gave her the phone of her nephew. Basically, she just would not leave until they gave it to her. And then, when she powered it up, there were all of these messages from people like Danny Cleggett actually brokering his transfer to Florida. So, we had some great evidence that way, and then we confronted these people with this evidence. And in one case, a patient broker just gave us a full-out confession on the record.
Nicco Mele: Describe for us a little bit what a patient broker is.
David Armstrong: So, a patient broker will find somebody who’s desperate for treatment, doesn’t have insurance, so they’ll work with an insurance broker to get fraudulent insurance for them. Addiction treatment centers love Blue Cross Blue Shield because they pay very well, so they would sign people up in another state, say Pennsylvania, and use a fake address. They loved to use things like sober homes and treatment facilities as the address of these people to get them insurance. The treatment center then gets these people, maxes out their insurance for 90 days, and kicks them to the curb, and that’s the most dangerous point for a person who’s suffering from addiction because now they’ve gone cold turkey, essentially, for 90 days. They start using again, and their body is not acclimated to it, and they die. So, it was a very elaborate scheme where they would get them insurance and then be paid $3,000, $4,000 a head if the person ended up going into treatment. It’s basically human trafficking. So, Danny Cleggett and some others were involved in this, and thankfully, through things like people actually reactivating their kids’ Facebook pages, as well—because that’s where a lot of the community occurred—we were able to prove that they were engaged in this behavior.
Nicco Mele: What surprised you most in your reporting this story?
David Armstrong: What surprised me most is how unregulated, fragmented—and the lack of standardization in the treatment world. There is every method of treatment for opioid addiction. Some people believed in 12 step. Medication-assisted treatment has shown to be very effective, but very few treatment facilities use this. The one thing I learned is that the more beautiful, palatial, and exorbitant a treatment center is, probably the opposite is true of the level of care there. If you see a resort on a cliff that’s going to cost you $1,000 a day, your kid is probably not going to get great treatment there at all.
Nicco Mele: Emily, when you first started reporting on this, the first Bill O’Reilly story, did you have any inkling of what it might spawn?
Emily Steel: You know, I don’t think that we did. We started the summer of 2016 in August—Mike Schmidt and I—just started by getting the lawsuit that was originally filed against Bill O’Reilly and going through a clip search and looking through all of the coverage that had looked at this incident and this dispute from the fall of 2004. So, we really just focused all of our reporting on trying to figure out what had happened—what sort of allegations were being made, what was the operation within Fox News to hire private investigators to create a story that would depict this woman as a promiscuous woman that was out to shake O’Reilly down. And we really just tried to piece together that one story, that couple-of-week period from October 2004.
The more that we did our digging, we realized that in that original lawsuit people had really overlooked a couple of paragraphs where the woman filing the suit had said that O’Reilly had done this to other women and that he had threatened them and said that if they came forward, if they spoke about this publicly, that they would wish that they had never been born. So when we looked back, and we saw that, we thought, “You know, maybe this story is bigger. Maybe this is broader.” So, we started digging and expanding the circle of people and phone calls that we were making. And when we learned that there were all of these other women who had reached settlements with O’Reilly, that we now know totaled $45 million, that happened over the course of his entire tenure at Fox News, we knew that this was a much bigger story.
But when the story was published last April, I don’t think we had any idea that it would explode into this international movement that we see today. One of the things that I think is most extraordinary is that for so long we heard these statistics about the number of women who have been victims of assault or abuse or harassment. We never really heard their voices or their stories, and the floodgates just opened there, and that all is bursting into public view.
Nicco Mele: How did it feel to watch all the other stories this first story opened, to watch this growing movement—I think 71 men in positions of power, in media, in news resigned or fired— and then the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of stories on #MeToo? I think very few people have the opportunity to see such dramatic public impact of their reporting.
Emily Steel: I feel like maybe you guys would all agree that we’ve been so focused on following the facts and doing our individual stories that a lot of times you don’t always zoom out and see the bigger picture and the bigger impact that these stories have had. It’s interesting, because during that period from when the Harvey Weinstein story broke in October and when number after number after number of powerful man lost his job or was held accountable or lost an election or whatever, I was focusing on doing this one story about Vice Media, which is a big new media company where I found that there had been a pattern of settlements and a number of women who came forward—more than two dozen people who spoke about witnessing or experiencing harassment there. So, I was really just focused on doing this story, and when you zoom out it’s incredible. It’s really overwhelming, and it’s a huge moment and a huge shift and a huge change in our culture where women not only are feeling that they can tell these stories, but that the world was actually listening to them, and that’s powerful.
Nicco Mele: Wow.
Melissa, how did you figure out that one detective had basically framed 50 individual people for murder? Was this an open rumor? Did you have a eureka moment? Tell us how that happened.
Melissa Segura: Sure. I think it was several things. It’s funny—Nina Martin and I were talking about this just before the panel, that there’s actually a line, I think, through many of our stories, and that’s women’s voices. I can tell you that in the 1990s—let me back up and say that for the first few weeks of this project, the very first thing that I did was look through Nexis, look through Google, do all sorts of different terms. At that point, I only knew that there were maybe a dozen of these particular individuals alleging framing at the time. I couldn’t believe that even at that number a major media market like Chicago had let this story go untold. I mean, it was just staggering to me.
And what I found first through document searches, the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions had started to put together what they call a pattern of practice lawsuit, and that had named about 30 different individuals who were making this particular claim. So that was the point of departure for me, looking at those particular families, documenting and spreadsheeting the allegations at that moment. And then, I moved to Chicago for about six months, and I did nothing but tap into the former gang networks—many of these individuals were members of gangs —and started hearing and collecting stories and then adding them to the spreadsheet.
But in the course of those conversations, I think what was most disheartening is that there was a dedicated cadre of mothers, sisters, aunts who had come together and gone since the 1990s to every single police accountability meeting and every sort of different board and had consistently raised the very same allegations that I had raised in my piece, and nobody listened—nobody. I mean, these were women, many of whom are immigrant women, many of whom have very little education, many of whom didn’t have fluency with the English language, but they were so determined and steeled to bring their loved ones’ stories to the fore that they figured out how to file formal complaints, and nobody listened. No one listened, and I think that that was one of the most heartbreaking revelations of this piece.
Nicco Mele: What were your relationships with those families like?
Melissa Segura: I spent a total of about three years reporting this story, the series, and they varied. There were a number of families that we had identified that we were going to focus on because, again, I think one of the biggest challenges of this particular story—and I kept thinking about this—is if there’s a white guy in Iowa who is very conservative, how do I get him to understand that even though some of the subjects of the story might have some sort of criminal background—they mostly were admitted former gang members—how do I get them to be relatable characters? Everybody can understand why a mother would love her son unconditionally, and I think that that’s one of the ways that we framed that particular story. And I’m sorry. I’m so nervous. I was losing the thread on this particular question. (laughs)
So, with some of the families, like the Almodovar family who were featured in what I call the anchor piece, I talked to them at length probably in April 2015 for the very first time, and I mean hours and hours. And then, I didn’t speak to them for probably about a year as I was investigating the particulars of the case to match up the facts and working on other cases. But a lot of these women ended up inviting me to their homes. They fed me a lot. The Guevara 15 kicked in, as I call it, the name of the detective, just from having to eat a lot of Puerto Rican food. But I think for them the most empowering thing was that they were being heard for the very first time, and that automatically changes the relationship with somebody, at least their willingness to be able to share their stories. But, of course, it’s always difficult because I do have to keep that distance and sometimes have to gently remind them as they want to come and hug me in the courtroom that I am there as a professional, and so it’s sometimes a matter of explaining those relationships to them.
Nicco Mele: After your reporting, it seemed like some action was taken pretty quickly even though certain parts of the story had been reported by other news organizations before. What do you think it was about your reporting that moved the needle?
Melissa Segura: I think what we did most effectively is we told a story, and all of a sudden these weren’t people with mug shots on an Illinois Department of Corrections website who might somehow deserve what happened to them. We gave them flesh and blood and story, and I think that they became sons and brothers and nephews. And I think that that is an incredibly effective element in a story like this.
Nicco Mele: I’m going to open it up now to questions from the audience. There’s a microphone on either side, but I am just myself really profoundly humbled by the incredible hard work. I mean, I think every story at this table took an enormous amount of time to report—the courage, the dedication, and just the sophisticated work of these incredible professionals at the table. Thank you so much. (applause)
From the audience: Firstly, I’d like to say a huge thank-you. It’s an incredible honor, and, really, thank you for the inspiration. I have two questions. For Nina, I was curious in terms of NPR, what was the effect? How did the message get out there, and how did you get 2,000 stories in on one weekend? And I think a second question for the panel is how do you get the initial story to have impact and kind of gather its own momentum like in the case, Emily, of Harvey [Weinstein], etc. What is that magic that takes it to another whole level?
Nina Martin: Well, NPR is magic. (laughs) ProPublica is a little bit of an upstart. A lot of people had no idea who we were, especially in this audience. ProPublica doesn’t really have a very large female audience, actually, and we kind of recognized very early on that this was a story that would connect with women particularly powerfully, and we had to reach them. So, we wrote this call-out, which was basically explaining in very dry language what we were planning on doing, and we just kind of put it out there. And whenever you do that, you’re terrified that other people will get really good ideas and they’ll start doing it too. We figured that this was a topic that was ripe for reporting by other people, and we were basically opening ourselves up and saying, “Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s how we’re doing it.” I’m very sure that the NPR audience was enormously important in helping us, in taking the call-out. Certainly, people responded to it on ProPublica, but I think the NPR audience really took it up and really started posting it on Facebook and tweeting it really quickly.
I think that one of the revelations to me over the last year of all the accumulation of reporting that’s been done around this is that the #MeToo movement extends beyond sexual harassment, and it’s kind of been a #MeToo moment in journalism—understanding that half of people, as sources, as people who have stories to tell—have been recognized. I think that the outpouring was [because] we were doing that. I think that many women have been talking about these things amongst themselves for a long time. As I was leading up to doing the reporting on this, I would tell people that I was thinking about doing this project. And then, an hour later, I would extricate myself from the conversation because it turned out everybody had a story. Everybody knew somebody, and they were fascinated to take what they thought of as being a private tragedy or private health catastrophe, and to think of it as a public problem. And I think that part of the reaction to our call-out was that we were saying to women, “We don’t want to talk about this on Facebook anymore. We want to talk about this as journalism. This is a public health issue.” And that’s a profound reframing of the issue, and I think that that helped us gather these stories. And then, we ended up using them in creative ways, constantly going back to the stories, reposting them on Cosmopolitan and in Spanish and re-tweaking it to reach more African American women and mining the material for the reporting that we ended up doing.
Emily Steel: I think, to answer your second question, I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think it’s really three things—why the #MeToo movement and the sharing and the exposure of all of these harassment stories really kicked off. The first is that I think people really want to look so much for one moment or one story that really opened the floodgates—there was really this chorus of voices that got louder and louder and louder. So, there was the Cosby case a couple of years ago, and then there was the Ailes case in the summer of 2016. And then, by the time that we did the story about O’Reilly in the spring of 2016, we were able to show that Fox News had said that they were committed to creating a workplace based on trust and respect, but at the same time they had renewed a contract with their most powerful figure, who was making $25 million a year, despite this record of settlements that he had accumulated during his tenure.
And then, over the summer, my colleague Katie Benner and others in Silicon Valley and San Francisco wrote a number of stories about issues of sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. And when Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey published a story about Harvey Weinstein, it really just was this spark that ignited this entire movement. The other thing that’s so interesting to think about is the power of celebrity. So, Bill O’Reilly was the king of cable news. His show drew the highest ratings over a 15-year period, and he was a very powerful figure to go down. And during this period between when we published our story and when he was fired, there were a number of women who went to Twitter using a hashtag—it was called #DropOReilly—where they were sharing their own stories of sexual harassment and assault. And what was so interesting was that by the time the Harvey Weinstein story published it wasn’t just the person who was being accused who was famous, but there were a number of very powerful famous women who came forward with their stories also. So, it was Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, and that matters. That really matters.
And the third thing, too, is that while our stories were about individuals and allegations against them, we really tried to zoom out and report them and write them in a way that looked at the systemic issues that have allowed this problem to persist. So why did women fear going to HR? Because HR reported to the CEO, reported to the company. What was the issue with these legal settlements that silenced the women and allowed predators to continue their behavior? Why didn’t women feel like they would be believed when they talked about this issue? What was the problem with the EEOC and not having an authority to really investigate this? So, it was those three things, I think, that really mattered.
From the audience: Thank you.
Nicco Mele: Richard?
Richard Parker: Hi, I’m Richard Parker. I’m here on the faculty of the Shorenstein Center. I’m interested in going beyond the question of finding a voice—who enabled the predators, or kept silent in management—and I’ve seen almost no stories like that. It’s focused still on the first order of women speaking up. But if there’s to be real structural change, you’re going to have to go after the managers who knew something was going on and make a clear statement about that and call on the corporations and the employers to do something about that.
Emily Steel: With our coverage of O’Reilly and Fox News, we did write stories about these allegations and the settlements involving O’Reilly, but we were pretty clear if you go back to the story that we wrote in October that Bill O’Reilly had reached his $32 million settlement with this legal analyst who had appeared on his show. [O’Reilly] was actually a Harvard grad.
Richard Parker: A Harvard Kennedy School grad.
Emily Steel: Yes, exactly. And within a couple of weeks the company knew about the allegations. They knew that there had been a settlement. They say that they didn’t know the amount that it was settled for and renewed him, renewed his contract for $25 million a year at a time when they said that they were committed to creating a workplace based on trust and respect. I think one of the other really powerful pieces was a story that my colleagues Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor had written in I think late October or November or December. It all kind of blurs together now, but it looked at the complicity machine and how it wasn’t just this one man who had abused a number of women, but it was the number of people who stayed silent about this, the number of people who created these settlements that allowed them not to talk, who used private investigators to dig up dirt about them to then feed back to the tabloids. So, I think that we really have tried to look at this issue, but I agree, as we go forward—
Richard Parker: Can I just push a little back? So, you’ve done a good job on people at Fox, but what about the people at NPR or PBS? Haven’t they gotten by a lot more easily, and why?
Emily Steel: I think it’s a great avenue for us to continue to do this reporting, and I think it’s the next step, to examine those systemic issues.
Nicco Mele: I want to ask Melissa, too, your reporting—all of the stories at the table in some sense were about systemic complicity on the part of superiors or management or people in charge somewhere. Melissa, particularly striking in your case is that this one detective got away with this.
Melissa Segura: Right. It’s always hard for me to summarize the story because it’s the easy sort of narrative that it’s one bad apple, right? We hear that so many times, that “it’s a bad apple” narrative. But, no—a story that we ran at the end of December went through an entire case of this particular detective trying to frame two different individuals, but that’s actually not what the story was about. The story was about, from the moment he submitted this report to a supervisor, what happened there? Here were all the red flags that were missed. We went through the judicial system, how they missed it. Throughout the series, we made concerted efforts, very deliberate efforts to highlight how, everyone, everything from the police accountability boards to supervisors, to coworkers comes together and informs what in Chicago they call the blue wall. There’s this code of silence the Department of Justice even had written about in 2015 that’s pervasive there. So the easy sort of snapshot is to say, “Oh look, see how bad this particular officer was,” but no, no, no, no. The question that we’re really presenting to our readers is, “Look at how the system failed and how many of those particular actors are allowed to continue and now are actually running the department in very high-ranking positions.” So, we’re continuing, I think, to shine a light on that.
From the audience: As you mentioned earlier, The Washington Post and the mainstream media’s coverage in general of alleged Russian conspiracies is very astounding, none more so, of course, than the sensational scoop that the Post broke early last year about how Russians had allegedly hacked the U.S. electoral system and turned out to be, of course, totally apocryphal. So are there ulterior political motives not just relating to the president but relating to these kinds of secretive, national security state sources that you use, to recreate the climate and atmosphere of the Cold War, which is a very dangerous kind of attempt to play on people’s fears and hyper-inflate a threat that doesn’t exist for short-term political gain that can have very long-term national, international damage?
Rosalind Helderman: I think that in reporting you always have to be wary of the motivations of your sources, and that’s certainly true with this story as with many. I think this is a story where people’s motivations are in some cases more complicated, more difficult to suss out. There are some challenging international players at work here. I’ve not observed what you’ve suggested thus far, a sort of concerted effort to create a story where there is none for political purposes. That’s not been what I’ve seen from the sources so far, but the motivation question is one that we always have to grapple with. As Mueller’s team has advanced with his work, we’ve seen more public detailing of some of the information that came out in the original intelligence assessment in January showing that, no, there was Russian interference in the election. The details that the Mueller team unveiled regarding the Internet Research Agency and their efforts to sow dissension and to interfere in the election through social media—obviously until he’s able to bring those folks to the country and have a court case we won’t see all of it, but there was a lot of detail in that, so I’ve not observed quite what you’ve suggested.
From the audience: I wonder if I can actually turn that around and ask about the experience the newsrooms have had of feeling like traps are being set for them. You talked about the high stakes of making a mistake and particularly around a topic that is as sensitive in many ways as this. How have you navigated that in the normal care that you would take, but knowing that there is this added risk?
Rosalind Helderman: Yeah. Some of you may know that The Washington Post had a very public experience with this after the reporting some of my colleagues did on Roy Moore in Alabama where James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas targeted The Washington Post and tried to trick our reporters into reporting something falsely, and, in fact, we turned the tables on the Project Veritas reporter and reported on the trick instead. I think that was eye-opening. It was creepy, frankly, but also, you know, Project Veritas targeted goodbye parties for Washington Post reporters who were leaving the paper. They showed up, and they surreptitiously filmed people in a social setting. They targeted a public podcast taping where they came up and talked to people, a setting sort of similar to this, and asked them questions and tried to film them saying things that would embarrass them. So, I think that that was fairly eye-opening not just for the Post but, I would imagine, for much of journalism—that there are people out there willing to go to some lengths to try to embarrass us and disparage us. So, I think we’re quite aware of that now, you know, when people call with tips. Five years ago, I would never have imagined the possibility that a person just calling anonymously with a tip might be recording that phone call, and they might care more about trying to get me to show enthusiasm, or that it might be that that interaction is actually what they’re after. And that’s a difficult way to report, but it’s the world we live in now.
Nicco Mele: All right. Last question.
From the audience: Obviously, you use the internet and social media to help you do your reporting, all of you. To what extent have you found that the internet and modern social media have altered the way you normally do your reporting, whether it’s enhanced it or hurt it? Or do you just feel like you’re just doing regular old reporting with some aid?
Nina Martin: Well, I think that, for us, it’s been essential. Without social media, without reaching out to people in the way that we did, without people sharing our call-outs through Facebook and Twitter and however else, Instagram, for all I know, we would not have gotten nearly the response that we got. Also, I think of crowd-funding as being kind of social media. I think it’s a funny anomaly. It’s a funny hybrid of things, but it’s turned out to be immensely important for our project both in terms of finding women and then also finding family members and friends to reach out to so that we can verify information and do the other kind of reporting that we do. Then, I think, once the stories appeared, they went viral in a way that I’ve never experienced personally, especially the first story, which was about a NICU nurse who died in New Jersey. And part of that was that we had video of her, showing her right after she gave birth and how extremely healthy she was at that point, and then she died in the hospital where she worked 18 hours later with her husband, who was a doctor, at her side. I think that the ability to kind of tell those stories—social media was able to pick up on those pieces.
The other time it happened was at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It had taken us a long time to report out our pieces on racial disparities because those stories just were a lot harder to report. And then, right after we published those stories, two things happened. Erica Garner died, and she, it turned out, had been recently pregnant, and her death was probably related to postpartum complications. And then, a few days later, Vogue published a story about Serena Williams. I’m sure when she told that story, when she was doing that profile, she thought of the story of her near-death experience because of postpartum complications as kind of an interesting anecdote, but people outside picked it up and made it go viral in a way that was pretty remarkable. I think that those things would not have happened without social media, for us at least.
Shannon Mullen: I wanted to add in our newsroom we’re really encouraged and expected to engage in social media on a daily basis. The days of working on a story and publishing it and moving on are a thing of the past, for better or for worse. Especially when we do investigative pieces, we really do have to fight to find that audience. And Gannett is very focused on your metrics, the metrics of online viewership and how many page views and so on. It’s not unlike writing a book these days, where, even if you’re lucky to get a book published by a major publisher, the author really has to go out there and find that audience and really kind of work it. So, we do a lot of that on social media, and a lot of interactions that we have, maybe that one out of a hundred posting exchange will be something that might result in a fruitful tip or a new direction, but it’s really part of our daily responsibilities now.
Melissa Segura: I can just add one thing here. Buzzfeed News, of course, was born on the internet. It’s a social news company, and it bills itself as such. I’m thinking of one particular story that was written about for-profit colleges and their predatory behaviors. This was written a number of years ago by one of my colleagues, Molly, and she was able to get so much information. She had so many leads not because people were coming to Buzzfeed News but because her stories lived on social media platforms. And not only was she getting that information, but, really, the story was reaching—and I think about this a lot—vulnerable communities, young people, people of color, people who might not have the resources to subscribe to The New York Times. They’re accessing these stories because they live on these social media platforms on their phone that are free, and I think that that sort of dissemination of news, particularly to markets that have been underserved, is very powerful.
Nicco Mele: Ladies and gentlemen, that was really breathtaking for me, and a real education. I have been inspired, just enormously inspired by the people at this table and their work. I hope you will join me in a little under an hour right downstairs in the Forum for the awards presentation. Let’s give these folks one final round of applause. (applause)