Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Five takeaways from recent business investigations

September 19, 2022

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For business beat reporters looking for story ideas or inspiration, here are five watchdog stories to spark creativity. The stories, all published in the first seven months of 2022, touch on a variety of topics: corporate responsibility, climate change, money in politics, workers’ rights and corporate corruption.

How illegal land grabs in Brazil’s Amazon feed the global beef industry

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

Why this investigation matters: An investigation from Brazilian magazine piauí and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) details how illegal farming and deforestation are fueling the world’s beef industry — far beyond Brazil’s borders. JBS, the global beef giant and the world’s largest meat company, purchased more than 21,000 cattle from facilities that source from illegal Amazon farms. JBS works with Carrefour and McDonald’s, meaning people could be consuming meat from an illegal Amazonian farm without knowing, reporters noted.

Deforestation poses a threat to indigenous peoples in the Amazon, the area’s biodiversity, and efforts to slow climate change and cattle ranching is to blame for 90% of deforestation in the Amazon, according to expert estimates. It’s well-established that climate change will impact all of us, but the very industry ravaging sections of the Amazon is closer to home — and our kitchens — than many may realize.

Takeaway for journalists: Allan de Abreu and the OCCRP illustrated the extent of one farm’s impact on deforestation between 2004 and 2020 using satellite imagery — a simple, yet powerful tool. Other reporters could replicate the use of satellite photos for their own coverage areas. There are various ways to access satellite photos for free, including through NASA.

How a secretive billionaire handed his fortune to the architect of the right-wing takeover of the courts

ProPublica

Why this investigation matters: ProPublica’s reporting tells the tale of how dark money from one low-profile Chicago billionaire is funding the right-wing movement.

The largest political donation ever recorded in U.S. history — $1.6 billion — is now in the hands of one of the country’s most influential, and most conservative figures.

The particulars of the arrangement — the donation of the entirety of an electronics company to a dark money group — enabled the secretive billionaire to avoid paying as much as $400 million in taxes.

Takeaway for journalists: Follow the money. Look for any publicly available tax filings related to nonprofits, businesses and political groups in your coverage area. Some examples could include annual business reports filed to the secretary of state or 990s.

As guest workers increase, so do concerns about wage cheating

Center for Public Integrity

Why this investigation matters: The number of guest workers in the US performing low-wage labor tripled in the 2010s. But U.S. Labor Department investigations into cases of wage theft haven’t kept pace.

Guest workers are entitled to the same protections and rights as workers who are U.S. citizens. But they’re in a uniquely vulnerable position: many are reliant on their employers for basic needs while on the job. Speaking up could cost them their visas, and in turn, opportunities to earn higher wages in the U.S. than they could in their home countries. A visa to work in the U.S. doesn’t guarantee vulnerable guest workers fair pay or treatment — even though they are legally entitled to both. The story sheds light on the problems migrant workers face and quantifies the extent to which some employers short-changed their laborers.

The reporters made their data and code available to the public and published a Spanish version of the story as well.

Takeaway for journalists: Government data sets can tell a story on their own if you have the skills to parse through them. If you’re stuck looking for story ideas, consider spending time perusing available government datasets. The U.S. Census Bureau offers extensive demographic data, and ProPublica publishes many data sets as well. Some free examples include all metadata and details on bills introduced to Congress between 1973 and 2021, toxic air pollution hotspots in the U.S., and a raw data set of news stories about hate crimes dating back to August 2017.

She helped create the Big Lie. Records suggest she turned it into a big grift.

Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting

Why this investigation matters: Texas non-profit True the Vote is at the center of the voter fraud movement: it put “2000 Mules,” an election conspiracy theory film, in cinemas across the country. The organization has touted — in two presidential elections — that it had evidence of widespread voter fraud. But it’s never released any evidence.

Through meticulously reviewing thousands of pages of court records, tax returns, and state filings, reporter Cassandra Jaramillo illustrates how True the Vote enriched its founders while it led an anti-democracy crusade to challenge the results of the 2020 Election. In Jaramillo’s words, “the story of True the Vote highlights how exploiting the Big Lie has become a lucrative enterprise, growing from a cottage industry to a thriving economy.”

Takeaway for journalists: Always follow the money. Investigate the finances and tax filings of local non-profit political groups in your coverage area.

The Ericsson List

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Why this investigation matters: Ericsson, a Sweden-based global telecom corporation, continued to conduct business as usual in Iraq after the Islamic State seized control in various parts of the nation. But the company’s business included shady dealings. An investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that the company’s commerce included tens of millions of dollars in what reporters called “suspicious” payments over the course of nearly a decade.

A group of reporters across more than 30 media organizations in 22 countries based the project on leaked internal reports from Ericsson’s compliance department. The investigation found that Ericsson was engaging in corruption in Iraq while it was in the midst of negotiations with U.S. prosecutors to settle bribery-related charges in other countries.

Ericsson’s subcontractors may have paid Islamic State militants in Iraq to avoid customs. The company is also facing bribery and fraud allegations in more than a dozen countries.

The ICIJ’s work on this story lends to questions about the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to settle corporate criminal cases using deferred prosecution agreements that impose fines, penalize shareholders, but many times fail to hold the executives responsible to account.

Takeaway for journalists: Building trust with sources and the public is critical. The ICIJ’s investigation was based on documents leaked from an anonymous source. If the anonymous source had not trusted the ICIJ, perhaps they may not have leaked the documents, and the investigation would not have been possible.

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