Palm oil has become one of the most ubiquitous commodities globally, found in nearly half the products on supermarket shelves, but is at the same time one of the least well-known to consumers. Barlett and Steele 2021 Silver Award winners Margie Mason and Robin McDowell set out to change that by documenting the horrific human-rights abuses in Malaysia and Indonesia’s multi-billion-dollar palm oil industry.
Based on almost two years of research and more than 130 interviews of current and former workers on palm oil plantations, Mason and McDowell’s series “Fruits of Labor” outlined how those laborers endured slavery, rape, and other abuse at the hands of employers.
“Very few people stop to think about who’s doing the work on these plantations. How labor-intensive and dangerous the work can be despite the outcome of big money produced,” Mason said. “We waved the flag and sounded the alarm.”
Mason and McDowell were realistic about their desired outcome when reporting on the generations-old industry, knowing change would not occur overnight. However, they hope their series will start the conversation needed for change.
The duo credit each other and their relationship with their editors for their success.
“Having somebody you can trust that sees stories the same way you do and is willing to fight for what you want for a story is really rare,” McDowell said. “Our team, including Margie, Ron Nixon, and Kristin Gasly, made all the difference.” Mason and McDowell’s relationship resembles Don Barlett and James Steele’s relationship because of their incredible working relationship and “being one brain,” in Mason’s words. The similarity of their relationships makes the Barlett and Steele Award that much more meaningful to Mason and McDowell. So it’s not just awarding their reporting, but their teamwork and relationship as well.
Mason and McDowell advise aspiring journalists to “stay hungry” and be passionate about the stories they report to help others in the world care when they read their articles, which is also how they maintain objectivity.
“The really nice thing about investigative projects is that if it’s done right and you capture the stories well, then it could cause a need for change. So you shine a light on the issue, which makes it a little easier because you know your reporting can make a difference,” McDowell said as she described how she maintained her objectivity when she reported on modern-day slavery, rape, and mistreatment in the palm oil industry.
Objectivity and not being too involved may be hard to maintain when reporting on a topic that possesses intense emotions, but “it’s okay to feel something as long as you maintain your professionalism and it doesn’t affect your reporting,” advised Mason. For example, Mason was able to help a desperate Indonesian named Jum – who was an interviewee in “Fruits of Labor” – when he called Mason for help after he fled a Malaysian plantation. Mason was able to get Jum in contact with the International Organization for Migration, and Jum finally returned to his family in Indonesia after seven years of being held against his will on the plantation.
Not only did the “Fruits of Labor” series win the Barlett and Steele Silver award and make the finalists list for the Pulitzer Award in Investigative Reporting, but it helped return a son to his family.