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IRE lesson: How beer, pizza and a young woman led to a Pulitzer

Gary Cohn, adjunct professor, USC Annenberg School of Journalism

Gary Cohn

ORLANDO – Gary Cohn and his fellow reporter, Will Englund, at The Baltimore Sun had multiple obstacles to overcome as they tried to talk to workers at Baltimore-harbor businesses engaged in the dangerous practice of dismantling and disposing of large ships.

For starters, they didn’t know who the workers were or where they lived. Many were illegal immigrants, who wouldn’t want to be publicly identified. Many spoke only Spanish, and Cohn said he and Englund spoke Spanish only well enough “to order a beer, not to conduct an interview.”

So, he explained how he and Englund set about overcoming those difficulties. His audience was 84 attendees of a Reynolds Center workshop today on investigating private companies and nonprofits that preceded the Investigative Editors and Reporters Conference June 9-12.

With no names or addresses for the workers, he and Englund decided to hang out in their cars outside of the businesses and follow the workers home. They found them living in low-cost hotels and rooming houses.

When they showed up again at one of the worker’s doors, “he took one look at us and took off. He thought we were immigration police.

“We realized we had to come up plan to get the workers to talk to us. We had to get in the door.”

First, they hired a young, female law student who had worked with laborers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “We thought she would be able to translate and relate to these sorts of workers,” he said.

Melanie Payne, reporter, The News-Press, Fort Myers, Fla.

Melanie Payne, reporter for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., finds a Form 990 online during the Reynolds Center workshop on investigating private companies and nonprofits.

Then, on the way to the workers’ homes, they stopped and picked up a couple of pizzas and six-packs of beer. This time,  “instead of looking like immigration police, we were two guys bringing beer, pizza and a young woman. That got us in the door.”

The two reporters immediately identified themselves, and some of the workers remained wary throughout the evening. But others approached the two and asked if they could meet with them privately later.

When they met with the men, they told them the companies were violating health and safety regulations, leading to unsafe working conditions, as well as pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.  Cohn said they were able to corroborate the workers’ stories in various ways, but they “only found out about the stories by getting out.

“I would urge you when do investigations of private companies to think broadly. Sometimes records can get you to people. In this case, people got us to records. We found out about all kinds of accidents and deaths in this industry. People did not remember details. But we put in the names of companies and ran them through courthouse databases wherever they operated,” and out came those details.

“Think of yourself not just as a business journalist who can go out and read these financial documents. You’re part private detective, part psychologist,” he said.

Keep asking yourself: “How am I going to get in the door? How am I going to get people to talk to me?”

Reynolds Center workshop at IRE

Mark Lawton (left) of the Pioneer Press newspapers in suburban Chicago, freelancer Kiara Ashanti (center) and Andrea Rock of Consumer Reports discuss a reporting challenge during the Reynolds Center workshop on investigating private companies and nonprofits.

In Cohn’s and Englund’s case, the fruits of asking those questions — and others — was the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for “their compelling series on the international shipbreaking industry, that revealed the dangers posed to workers and the environment when discarded ships are dismantled.”

Cohn, now an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Southern California, spoke along with Chris Roush, Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at the University of North Carolina. For their handouts and PowerPoints, as well as video recordings and materials from a similar workshop held on Feb. 23 in Raleigh, please see our self-guided training on investigating private companies and nonprofits.

In Basics, Green | Sustainability.

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