Visual evidence of a pig that was tossed into a pickup truck and delivered to a suburban Chicago grocery store. Image courtesy of CBS 2 Chicago.
On a hot summer day, a truck backs into a loading bay in Chicago’s popular Fulton Street meat market. The truck’s driver has no idea his every move is being captured on a small video camera. Thousands of pounds of pork, cases of yogurt, and crates filled with fruits and vegetables are loaded onto a truck that has no refrigeration. It’s an illegal load. Outside temperatures reach nearly 90 degrees. The yogurt can spoil in the heat. The pork (whole pigs) is dripping blood and other moisture onto peppers and tomatoes, which is a serious violation of public health codes and can lead to cross contamination.
The contaminated load is about to be driven to a restaurant 100 miles away. Again, the driver has no idea he’s being tailed by me. A CBS 2 photographer joins me during this trip. A producer back at the station is running the license plate, then cross-checking the name and address with business licenses in Wisconsin.
We learn it is a Mexican grocery store that doubles as a restaurant serving fresh meals in the popular vacation town of Delavan, Wisconsin. Every minute counts, so I begin calling information for the names of agencies that might be able to inspect this load based on my findings. I finally reach an inspector who agrees to meet me en route. He three-ways the call to local police and then gets them involved in a slow moving police chase as the truck driver tries to get away. The driver is eventually pulled over and allows the load to be inspected. Temperature readings are taken, the food is ordered destroyed, and numerous citations are issued. CBS 2 is thanked for keeping potentially hazardous meat, dairy and vegetables off the market. And a bigger story is developed on how the state of Illinois has only six inspectors available to examine the kinds of trucks used to ship food.
During this and other CBS 2 undercover investigations, I operate the camera and also am the reporter. I often shoot undercover video, and I’ve been doing so for the past decade. I usually start the surveillance projects on my own, figure out patterns, and then schedule a photographer to accompany me. Knowing what to expect helps cut down on wasted overtime; having a camera handy just makes sense in case something important happens. Maximizing resources are a must, since the days of coming up empty on a shoot are over.
We also try to maximize the impact of our stories by expanding their scope. Here are two examples:
- Knowing we have a great example of an illegal food shipment, we then cultivate sources. Meat inspectors give us tips with the promise of confidentiality about other shortfalls with food inspection agencies.
- We learn no inspectors are sent to check large shipments of refrigerated meat after the trucks hauling it sustain damage in crashes. I begin staking out key roads where truck drivers often hit viaducts, in some cases ripping the tops of their refrigerated trailers and exposing frozen meat to sweltering heat. (Adulterated loads like these can be salvaged if an inspector can ensure food temperatures do not slip into the danger zone of 40 or more degrees.) We find two major loads compromised by heat with no inspectors notified. The loads are transferred to new trailers, refrozen and shipped days later to wholesalers who had no idea the boxes of meat were tainted.
Prepare to Get Dirty
On a freezing, snowy Chicago night, a worker at a company hired to clean airplanes at O’Hare International Airport throws a clear plastic bag of documents into a garbage dumpster. Once again I am doing the video surveillance. This time I also jump into the dumpster and load my car with bags of confidential files left in the trash. I continue to visit this dumpster for two months gathering sensitive and confidential files including airport employee applications, Social Security numbers, and their FBI fingerprint check forms. The Social Security numbers enabled us to do background checks on workers to determine how many had criminal records.
This investigation also led to the discovery that access badges to the airports’ secure entrances and checkpoints were missing. Not just one or two but 3,800 badges.
CBS 2 Chicago producer Michele Youngerman used documents I discovered in the trash as a basis for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Discarded memos detailing missing worker access badges led to her filing an FOIA with the Chicago Department of Aviation, which oversees the employee badge program. We were given a computer disc detailing the entire debacle, including the names of all missing badge holders. The day after receiving the disc, the Department of Aviation and the Transportation Security Administration in Washington, D.C., asked us to give the disc back. We did not. Instead we did numerous stories that led to a federal and local investigation—more than 100 arrests, new security measures, and numerous awards for CBS 2 including the 2008 duPont-Columbia University Award.
A photo taken after a truck’s top was ripped off, damaging refrigeration units and exposing meat to high temperatures. Image courtesy of CBS 2 Chicago.
Partnering With Print and Using Radio
Another survival tactic I have used the past four years is a method to combat another industry problem—a shrinking audience. I would strongly advise broadcast students to study print and print students to study broadcast. Many broadcast stations and newspapers now partner to reach more people. For example, to give my investigations a longer shelf life, I’ve been writing long-form newspaper stories with Youngerman for which we receive no pay. These are printed in suburban newspapers the day after our stories debut on our 10 p.m. newscast.
These articles keep the story alive; they are great for publicity and help us get tips from folks who might not have seen the television story. Our articles—typically told in ways that are more comprehensive than our TV format permits—allow us to actually advance the story with more facts and supplemental information. In exchange, the newspapers promote, on their front page, our TV story that will be broadcast that night. My contact information and our investigative brand, “2 Investigators,” are always included at the end of the copy. Often we receive numerous e-mail tips from the newspaper stories, and this makes our extra work well worth it.
Stories that are on TV and in the newspaper also tend to lead to talk radio hosts inviting me to advance the story further on their shows. Once again, this mixing of media leads to a branding of the end product with our investigative team and station. It’s also important to remember that both media are now merged on news Web sites.
Background Checking and Social Networks
In this ever-changing world of journalism, we have to adapt quickly—and this includes adapting to new ways of doing our reporting and research.
Of course, we still use court records, property records, and Nexis to track information. But another useful tool that my team and I are using is social network sites. We use these to conduct background checks or find people we are investigating. Facebook is our primary source, and we’ve found it also is an incredibly powerful tool for marketing our story and advertising it to the computer entrenched younger generation.
Most recently, we exposed illegal corporal punishment in Chicago public schools. We found hundreds of students who had been beaten by teachers, principals and other adults; some weapons used included belts, broomsticks and yardsticks. We also uncovered coaches padding athletes with wooden planks for missing plays.
To find those athletes and other students who had information about the banned punishment, we used school yearbooks, team rosters, and searched Facebook. We also used Facebook to send messages (basically a promotion) to let these students know when to watch the story. After it was broadcast, we received numerous tips from other students that added to the story. In turn, these students then helped promote our follow-up stories by posting the information on their Facebook pages, which thousands of their classmates viewed. The investigation is still unraveling but has led to a new policy and the suspension or termination of numerous teachers, security guards, and coaches.
Textbooks can’t be written fast enough to teach aspiring journalists how to meet the challenges created by technology and the ways in which we communicate today or will in the future. Don’t throw out the old-school detective work and creative storytelling just yet; try blending it in with the opportunities that digital media and its ever-changing cyber-superhighway present.
Dave Savini is an investigative reporter with WBBM-TV, CBS 2 in Chicago, Illinois.