She knew about this. It was an open secret. Men who had escaped or been rescued told their tales in Thailand. But no one knew how to nail it down so culpability could not be denied or how to make it relevant to fish-eating consumers in the U.S. “Other journalists had tried to do it and failed,” says Mason. “We were told we couldn’t do it. That we were going after the Holy Grail. Actually, that kind of helped.”
It took almost a year for Mason and Associated Press colleague Robin McDowell to track down the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina, where they discovered fishermen locked in a cage and others working under punishing conditions against their will. Soon after, AP reporters Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan began working the story. Htsuan was particularly valuable because she spoke the local language.
It wasn’t enough to simply tell the story of indentured and abused fishermen from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The four-member investigative team (five, including editor Mary Rajkumar) wanted to show the intricate web of global connections that land a fish caught in Indonesia on American tables. They insisted on naming names of companies, restaurants, and others involved in buying fish caught by slaves.
Equally important, they also wanted to ensure the men were off the island and safe before the first story was published in March 2015. “We knew however we did it, we had to trace the fish from Benjina to Thailand to the U.S., to the seafood on American plates,” says Mason.
Once in Benjina, they logged the names of ships filled with slave-caught seafood and used satellite data to track one ship to a Thai seaport. Then they flew to secretly meet the ship, later hiding in a small truck for four days as they watched the cargo delivered to cold storage and processing factories before it was shipped to the U.S.
In April, their dogged reporting earned the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, along with other top journalism prizes. As a result, more than 2,000 slaves were freed. One man hadn’t seen his family in Burma for 22 years.
AP’s “Seafood from Slaves” is emblematic of stories the Pulitzer and other awards have honored for decades for exposing how influential corporations, institutions, and other commercial or financial interests abuse their power and enrich their coffers by avoiding taxes, cutting back on safety conditions and taking advantage of the weak and powerless. What distinguishes today’s business reporting from the past is vibrant storytelling and the ability to use powerful computers and interactive graphics to make sense of complex data.
“If you let it be deadly dull which is often true with business reporting, it is going to have a narrower readership,” says Paul Steiger, founding editor in chief of ProPublica, which has racked up three Pulitzer prizes since June 2008 when it was founded. “Today, there are more and more techniques to make storytelling more alluring. You can now embed video; you can do still photographs and interactive databases.”
What distinguishes today’s business reporting from the past is vibrant storytelling and the ability to use powerful computers and interactive graphics to make sense of complex data
What distinguishes today’s business reporting from the past is vibrant storytelling and the ability to use powerful computers and interactive graphics to make sense of complex data
American business is arguably as powerful, if not more powerful than politics, especially now that we inhabit a global world where an intricate web of connections can link slaves on one side of the world to the fish on your plate or show the appalling employment conditions of Chinese workers who assemble the Apple smartphones we depend on. Amazon.com’s revenue is bigger than Kenya’s gross domestic product, according to Business Insider, which found 25 major American corporations whose 2010 revenues were greater than the GDP of entire nations.
Because corporations create millions of jobs and control vast amounts of money and resources, their sheer economic power dwarfs governments’ ability to regulate and oversee them, which adds pressure on journalists to act as watchdogs.While there is no Pulitzer category for business reporting, and there’s not likely to be one in the future, many Pulitzers this year and in previous years have a business focus. This year alone, at least a third of the 28 Pulitzer winners or finalists explored the relationship between business and its impact on society. “A glance at the 2015 prizewinners discloses that the two investigative winners dealt with business issues—corporate lobbying and the business of medicine,” says Mike Pride, Pulitzer Prize administrator since 2014. “The Explanatory winner from Bloomberg News was about how some U.S. corporations dodge taxes. The Editorial Writing winner was about the effects of restaurants’ tipping policies on the pocketbooks of their employees.”
In 2013, New York Times reporter David Barboza won the Pulitzer for International Reporting for his work exposing corruption at high levels of the Chinese government, mapping power relationships and showing the government’s tight influence over business. “Business reporting continues to become a bigger part of investigative reporting,” says Barboza. “The year I won, [The New York Times] had three business stories win. I don’t think it’s ever happened before.”
Barboza shared a second Pulitzer in 2013 with the Times staff in Explanatory Reporting “for its penetrating look into business practices by Apple and other technology companies that illustrates the darker side of a changing global economy for workers and consumers.” A third Pulitzer that year went to the Times in Investigative Reporting for showing how Wal-Mart used bribery to dominate the market in Mexico.
When Barboza was an intern for the Times in Boston in 1986, he passed on a tip for an investigative story. A colleague told him Times bureaus didn’t really do investigative reporting. Today, it’s a different world. Investigative reporting is no longer confined to one section, but done across the newsroom and business components play a large role in those investigations.
“In my short history, the whole concept of business reporting after 1987 into the ’90s was that better and better people wanted to go into the business section,” says Barboza, who joined the Times business section as a staff reporter in 1997. “Every subject is tied into business. You can do agriculture. The environment. You can tie it to politics, to every aspect of the economy. Mining disasters are a business story. Even if you cover education, it’s tied into business.”
Tenacious business reporting is now being done by the traditional players—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Bloomberg News, Fortune, and others—as well as new kids on the block: ProPublica, The Huffington Post, the Center for Public Integrity, BuzzFeed News, and others. Their journalism often takes on companies that abuse their power, bringing about reforms and saving lives.
But the business journalism world has also faltered, as it did in failing to spot in advance and effectively cover the 2008-2009 financial crisis or the earlier mortgage meltdown. Many of the same institutions that hold the powerful accountable also failed to provide a warning or insight into the financial collapse. “News organizations wrestling with their own financial problems and a compromised regulatory environment at the federal level lapsed into conventional coverage and access reporting, as opposed to accountability reporting,” according to Dean Starkman, author of “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism,” an analysis of business-press failures prior to the 2008 financial crisis. “Journalism was fully capable of taking on Wall Street and particularly the predations of a mortgage market that was systemically corrupt, but didn’t. The significance of that failure is self-evident.”The Pulitzers have been awarded to reporters covering business as far back as 1921 when The Boston Post won the Public Service award for exposing Charles Ponzi’s moneymaking schemes that eventually led to his arrest. In 1929, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won for reporting on a federal official’s secret leasing of oil reserves, known as the Teapot Dome scandal. It was considered one of the worst scandals in federal history prior to Watergate in 1972.
Pulitzers have been handed to journalists at organizations large and small for holding businesses accountable in several categories: Public Service, Investigative Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, and National Reporting. Those stories take on topics affecting us all, such as Apple’s Chinese assemblers working with toxic chemicals in sweatshop conditions, Wal-Mart’s Goliath influence, Medicare doctors abusing the system, corporations covering up fatal accidents at railway crossings, and how wealthy citizens and corporations exploit tax loopholes and avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
“If you want to cover stuff that really affects people’s lives, forget Congress. You want to cover business,” says Mark Vamos, chair of business journalism at Southern Methodist University and former editor in chief of Fast Company.
A large focus of business journalism attempts to hold the powerful accountable, which often poses immense reporting challenges. “One of the biggest challenges we faced was that we didn’t have any real sources to guide us,” says Mason about the AP seafood investigation. “The reason it took so long is we didn’t have what you have with most stories, some road map, documents, data, or a source who could point us. We had to figure it out piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle.”
InsideClimate News (ICN), a scrappy online start-up and Pulitzer finalist this year for the Public Service award, faced a different challenge with “Exxon: The Road Not Taken.” Its nine-part, 21,000-word examination detailed Exxon’s deception in the climate change debate over the last 40 years. The reporting tells the story of Exxon scientists conducting cutting-edge research and warning top executives as early as 1977 that burning fossil fuels was posing huge risks to the planet. Those executives listened back then and ordered more climate research.
A decade later, though, when the stakes were clear, Exxon and its industry peers changed direction. They spent the following decades propagating a misinformation campaign designed to confuse the conversation about whether climate change is a real issue.
ICN’s biggest reporting challenges were a lack of human sources and no digital path to follow. “Exxon certainly didn’t cooperate with us,” says David Sassoon, ICN’s co-founder and publisher. “In addition to the usual problems around an investigation, a lot of people were dead or too ill or not inclined to talk to us. It was compounded by the fact that 40 years had passed.”
Four ICN reporters spent eight months building trust with one source after another until they were able to secure hundreds of internal Exxon documents that provided unimpeachable evidence of a secret Exxon wished to conceal. “The idea came to me really from a conversation with Daniel Ellsberg,” who leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times, says Sassoon. “It really seemed to us that it was an important story to pursue to find out what the oil industry knew and when they knew it, given their engagement with climate policy and climate science.”
ICN began as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit experiment in 2007 to see if it could do good environmental journalism around climate issues. Sassoon felt there was too much inaccurate reporting using false equivalencies. “It turns out because of the work we do on climate issues, the flip side of that coin is energy. And energy is big business,” he says.
This year alone, at least a third of the 28 Pulitzer winners or finalists explored the relationship between business and its impact on society
In 2013, Sassoon’s online venture won the Pulitzer for National Reporting for its coverage of an obscure million-gallon oil spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010: “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard of.” That year’s win made it the third (and smallest) Web-based news organization to win the National Reporting Pulitzer, behind ProPublica and The Huffington Post.
With only a $1.5 million budget, ICN has proven that perseverance matters more than size. “With not a lot of resources (12 reporters), we need to figure out what is the most useful thing to do,” says Sassoon. “There’s no need for us to repeat the stories everyone else is doing. We are looking for the gaps. We have gotten quite practiced at looking for stories that have impact and will be useful.”
The two Pulitzers, among other awards, and consistently strong climate reporting are “absolutely” helping Sassoon find it easier to raise money, he says, proving high-quality journalism might just be a sustainable business model, at least for single-focus reporting.
The Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) outfit gave its highest prize to four news organizations this year: AP, the Tampa Bay Times for a series on how schools fail black children in Pinellas County, and to a collaboration between NPR and ProPublica for “Insult to Injury: America’s Vanishing Worker Protections.” The joint project took on the dry topic of declining workers’ compensation benefits. It looked at how employers in nearly every state shortchanged their workers and managed to make the stories come alive beyond laws and insurance statistics. “The project masterfully details how states across the nation have dismantled their workers’ comp programs, cutting benefits and sticking taxpayers with a growing bill for injured workers,” says the write-up for the IRE Medal.
Workers’ comp affects us all, notes Chris Roush, who founded the online Talking Biz News, which aggregates stories about business journalism. “If we get injured on the job, we are going to want that,” says Roush. “The fact that it was being gutted in every state in the country was a huge wake-up call.” But the project was done using masterful, heartbreaking storytelling about maimed workers whose lives would never be the same.
“A lot of business coverage focuses on Wall Street,” says ProPublica’s Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “This was a hugely people-oriented project with examples that infuriate you. A guy loses his hand and the doctors want to give him a prosthetic that attaches to his body. But instead the insurance company says all he needs is a hook. The guy says, ‘I lost a hand. I didn’t lose a hook.’ It’s that kind of cheapskate stuff that is infuriating.”
While the human angle distinguishes “Insult to Injury,” the project goes further with cutting-edge graphics. ProPublica news applications developer Lena Groeger built an interactive chart showing what happens when each state can set its own standards. Groeger and ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell devised an interactive graphic where a reader can look up a company, such as Costco or Wal-Mart, and find out how much it will pay if you lose a limb on the job. Costco’s benefit offers $75,000 for a hand. Wal-Mart gives $125,000. The national average for a lost hand is $144,930.
In this year’s Society of American Business Editors and Writers awards, “Insult to Injury” shared the top prize for online investigative reporting with the Exxon reporting by InsideClimate News. What may be most innovative is the team produced a guide teaching journalists how to investigate workers’ comp laws in their states, how to find affected workers, and determine average insurance premium rates.
The NPR-ProPublica work was a collaboration that married NPR’s unique storytelling and audience of millions with ProPublica’s ability to crunch massive amounts of data. Once anathema to highly competitive journalists, collaborations are de rigeur as organizations realize the impact of their work is doubled when they combine talents and distribute across platforms. One might have heard NPR correspondent Howard Berkes telling an injured worker’s story and then go online to check out ProPublica’s “How Much Is a Limb Worth?” in their state, or be drawn in further by the photographs.The biggest collaboration in journalistic history came together more than a year after the biggest leak in data journalism history dropped on the doorstep of Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper in Munich. The anonymous so-called Panama Papers leak included 2.6 terabytes of data with 11.5 million documents belonging to Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm specializing in creating shell companies and trusts for the wealthy and famous to hide assets for tax, political, and other reasons. While it’s legal for the Panamanian law firm to set up offshore companies, those transactions can often rob countries of tax revenues and cover up corruption or fraud and allow the removal of large amounts of money from the economies of certain countries.
The leak was more than the German newspaper could handle so they brought their “find” to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, D.C., a global partnership of news organizations started in 1997. The data would reveal billions of dollars of assets belonging to the rich, the famous, and some prominent political figures and associates cloaked behind shell companies. It would lead to the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, reveal the holdings of many of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friends, and spawn countless investigations around the world. In all, more than 370 journalists from about 70 countries worked for nearly a year scouring the data for stories.
“If you want to cover stuff that really affects people’s lives, forget Congress. You want to cover business” —Mark Vamos, former editor in chief of Fast Company
ICIJ operates under the concept of “radical sharing.” Each news organization signed agreements promising to share whatever they found and keep information confidential. The agreement required them to all publish simultaneously at 2 p.m. April 3. “In truth, the agreement doesn’t have much legal validity,” says Marina Walker, deputy director of ICIJ. “It’s more like a moral agreement. These are the ground rules. If they are broken, there’s no project for everyone.”
Collaboration across borders is the future, say many, since collaborative reporting is an efficient business model.
“These projects are expensive,” says Walker. “That’s why they are disappearing in so many newsrooms. When we collaborate, we are sharing resources. You all don’t have to come to Panama for comments from Mossack Fonseca. We will pool interviews and footage from Panama. We pooled images and shared them on the I-Hub [virtual newsroom].)” In May, ICIJ released all the names connected to more than 200,000 offshore companies culled from the data that is open to the public to search.
While Inside Climate News may have gotten a boost from its Pulitizer attention and strong reporting, ICIJ is struggling financially. Shortly after its moment in the spotlight, its parent, the Center for Public Integrity, began cutting costs forcing ICIJ to let go three contract journalists and scale back ambitions.
This cost-cutting comes just when watchdog reporting such as ICIJ’s and others is needed most. As financial and commercial institutions continue to grow in size and wealth, their ability to influence politics, world affairs, and everyday life will continue to increase. Governments can try to keep the behemoths in check, but it’s increasingly clear they don’t have the resources to do it alone. It now becomes more necessary than ever for journalism organizations, individually and collectively, to uphold the Pulitzer tradition and hold American and multinational businesses accountable.