b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Top investigative journalists used databases, graphics, video, and good old-fashioned shoe leather to reveal slave labor, expose unfair arbitration practices, and detail police shootings and school funding flaws.

Winners and finalists discussed their reporting challenges during last week’s Goldsmith Awards ceremonies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The awards are administered by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Associated Press series uncovering the use of slave labor in the Thai seafood industry won the top $25,000 award. Robin McDowell, a member of the four-member team that spent 18 months exposing abusive practices in the AP’s “Seafood from Slaves,” faced the problem of getting victims to talk on the record. “We had to honor them but not to use their names, or they’d be killed,” she said. “How do we hold on to the power of the story with anonymous sources?”

The Guardian US in “The Counted” and The Washington Post in “Fatal Shooting by Police” tackled a similar subject: underreported fatal shootings by police.

The Post’s Kimberly Kindy called the job “ugly and messy”—and unprecedented. “Nobody had done it before,” she said. “There was no model. Going into this, we had no notion of how hard it was going to be to cover every fatal shooting in real time.… The information didn’t rush out. We had to keep going back to get more details.”

She said The Guardian’s competitive efforts helped the Post because “it made it harder for authorities to look the other way.”

Jon Swaine, part of the five-member Guardian team whose findings—along with the Post’s—led the FBI and the Department of Justice to revise their system for counting killings by police, said his biggest challenge was the small staff. Like the Post reporters, they worked nights and weekends keeping up with the constant flow of reports. The Guardian will combine reporting and verified crowd-sourced information to continue building a database of the killings.

Lisa Song, one of the four-member InsideClimate News team that disclosed that Exxon documented but buried climate change research in “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” said they initially thought it would be impossible to prove the cover-up.

“The main challenge was finding people willing to talk,” she said, but with a lot of “shoe leather reporting,” including door-to-door visits, they induced ex-employees to tell their stories. And finally, they unearthed thousands of internal memos that revealed what and when Exxon knew.

Michael LaForgia said the three-person Tampa Bay Times team that produced “Failure Factories” had to overcome editors’ and educators’ mindset that student underachievement was “inevitable, ignoring the basic question—why does this condition exist?”

The Times’s 18-month investigation used an extensive database along with graphics and video—as well as traditional storytelling methods—to show how resegregation transformed five once-average schools into the state’s worst.

For “Beware the Fine Print,” Jessica Silver-Greenberg and her two New York Times colleagues faced the challenge of knowing the arcane subject of arbitration clauses as well as the high-priced lawyers who used them to prevent people from suing credit card companies and retailers.

“A huge challenge was [detailing] ‘How did they do it?’” she said. To gain corporate lawyers’ trust, she added, the reporters needed to know the law. Then, she said, they could flatter attorneys by saying, “‘I understand the genius of what you did.’ That helped us gain their respect One lawyer was thrilled to talk about it.

“It wasn’t drama on the high seas or the battlefield, but in Park Avenue boardrooms.”

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

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