How they did it: Two journalists talk about their teen labor trafficking investigation

 
Journalists Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel prepare to interview a family in Guatemala.
Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel prepare to interview a family in Guatemala. (Photo by Pablo Solares)
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Editor’s note: On March 12, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy will award the 2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to a stellar investigative report that has had a direct impact on government, politics and policy at the national, state or local levels. Seven reporting teams have been chosen as finalists for the 2019 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. This year, for the first time, Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of interviews with the finalists, in the interest of giving a behind-the-scenes explanation of the process, tools, and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but had no involvement with or influence on the judging process for the Goldsmith Prize finalists or winner.

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The documentary “Trafficked in America” investigates a labor trafficking scheme targeting Guatemalan teenagers who were smuggled into the United States and forced to work long hours at an Ohio egg farm to pay off their smuggling debts.

The 55-minute film spotlights a problem that previously had received little attention from the news media, possibly because of the difficulty in reporting out such a story.

“What we knew was that this was an incredibly difficult area to report on,” journalist Daffodil Altan told me in a phone interview. “Reporting was limited, and we were trying to make a film about an unseen and invisible crime. We really wanted to tell this story in a way that hadn’t been told before — to try to take apart what this crime looks like on U.S. soil.”

For the story, Altan and her co-writer and co-producer, Andrés Cediel, traveled to Guatemala to locate victims’ families, to several states to meet with victims who were in protective custody and to the Ohio egg farm and neighboring trailer park where the teenagers had been living. They also went to Iowa to investigate tips about other kids who had been smuggled into the country, potentially to do forced work in food processing plants. Altan and Cediel also flew to Mexico together to interview a man named Pablo Duran Ramirez, a fugitive they had been trying to track down for more than a year who eventually pleaded guilty in connection with the labor trafficking scheme.

Andrés Cediel, left, and Daffodil Altan, right, sit at a table of food prepared by a family they interviewed in Guatemala.
Cediel, left, and Altan, right, sit at a table of food prepared by a family they interviewed in Guatemala. (Photo by Pablo Solares)

The investigative project — a collaboration between PBS’ Frontline and the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley’s  Graduate School of Journalism — took about two and a half years to complete. Shortly after the film aired in April 2018, the U.S. Senate held a hearing to examine the federal government’s role in the trafficking scheme. When the Guatemalan teens had reached the U.S.-Mexico border as unaccompanied minors, the border patrol turned them over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which released them to labor traffickers, Altan and Cediel reported in the story.

“Trafficked in America” was selected recently as a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded annually by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which also runs Journalist’s Resource.

To learn more about the project, I asked Altan and Cediel about their work. Below is an excerpt from our interview, which took place by phone and email.  I chose these five questions and responses, provided via email, because they offer such rich insights into the investigative reporting process and the importance of cultural competency in doing high-quality journalism.

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Denise Ordway, Journalist’s Resource: What are some things you learned about investigative reporting by doing this project that you did not already know?

Andrés Cediel: “On one hand, this project reinforced a lot of things I already knew. This work takes patience, resourcefulness, traveling long distances to speak to sources face to face, and that working on a case that is actively being investigated by law enforcement is a challenge.

It was the first time that I felt our reporting was changing facts on the ground as we were still in the process. We tracked down a fugitive that the FBI was looking for, and saw how it affected how law enforcement viewed and cooperated with us. Another source committed suicide shortly after we spoke with him, which raised questions for us about how far and deep the story went, whether we were in danger (it was initially investigated as a homicide), and the impact we were having by asking questions.

We also encountered some ethical issues around interviewing minors and exposing current conditions, and how to report it without putting them in too much danger. This is still a question that I am struggling with.”

Daffodil Altan: “Investigative journalism has the distinction of being such not because of any special or mysterious skill those who do it possess but because it takes a long, long time to get to the bottom of these kinds of stories. It requires tenacity and patience, two often competing tendencies. For this project we were also reminded that when working on investigative pieces, there can also [be] major setbacks before you have any kind of breakthrough in the story. We traveled a lot, sometimes just to knock on someone’s door who would not otherwise take our call. We had major interviews cancelled mid-air. We had to track down minor victims who were in protective custody and who were part of a sealed federal criminal case with few clues to lead us to them. Once we found them, some of them wanted nothing to do with us. We had a major potentially criminal source who we were making slow headway with mysteriously die in the middle of our reporting.

The complicated part of this story is that we were attempting to tell the story of an invisible crime — labor trafficking — in a visual way. Early potential film distributors wanted us to embed with the criminal or victimized elements of this crime. But by its very nature, labor trafficking is a crime that keeps its key protagonists hiding in plain sight: victims are often doing legal work — cleaning offices, debeaking chickens, taking care of the elderly — while being controlled by someone or some people who threaten them physically and psychologically in order to keep them in those jobs. The person inflicting these threats is usually the person whom the victim perceives as their immediate boss or supervisor, the person with ties to their home country and who, in essence, controls their fate. It’s a complex and difficult crime to take apart and we set out to do this with a major case that had key enablers at the government and industry levels. And this was something else that we felt was critical to illustrate — that this crime does not happen in a vacuum, that traffickers are often aided and abetted by bureaucratic government loopholes and big industry’s need for an unrelenting supply of labor.

Ultimately, I think the biggest takeaway for me from this project was that you cannot give up when you know that you are on to a story that has either not been told or been told in the way that you are reporting it. By not giving up we ended up with sources on camera who we perhaps did not anticipate would ever go on camera: a fugitive in Mexico, a major industry insider, the mother of the trafficker in Guatemala.”

 

Denise Ordway, Journalist’s Resource: You wrote in your awards submission paperwork that cultural competency was key to the success of this project. Can you talk about what cultural competency is, how you acquired it and how cultural competency helped you do this work? Should newsrooms place more value on cultural competency?

Journalists Daffodil Altan, left, and Andrés Cediel, right, in the Guatemalan highlands.
Altan, left, and Cediel, right, in the Guatemalan highlands. (Photo by Pablo Solares)

Andrés Cediel: “Cultural competency can be defined in several ways. In this project, it not only meant the ability to speak Spanish, but also how to be sensitive and aware in different spaces. Whether it was knocking on doors in a trailer park building sources with undocumented immigrants, or walking into impoverished villages in Guatemala, we needed to put people at ease, demonstrate respect and kindness, and understand what their particular circumstances and motivations were so that they would trust us with their stories.

In this sense, these skills are no different than what every reporter needs to have. But because of the extreme power imbalances between us as journalists and our subjects, knowing how to speak to people in their own language and demonstrating that we understand (as much as we can) what their life and world-views are, is a plus.

So, yes, newsrooms should place a high value on cultural competency — it makes the journalism better. “

Daffodil Altan: “Cultural competency is the ability to understand that far-flung Guatemalan immigrants living in remote, snow-heavy corners of Ohio are homesick for a very specific kind of tamale that has a lot of ingredients and is not easy to make well. Cultural competency is taking that knowledge and buying a batch of said tamales from the Guatemalan bakery you’ve found in California that makes them so authentically that they sell out by 8:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings; it means taking those tamales on an airplane across the country and showing up with them in the trailer park in Ohio, as a way to say, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Cultural competency means not having to explain a lot about your differences but rather sharing in the humility of shared experience. It means speaking the same language, literally and figuratively.

Reporters who are culturally competent are generally more humble and less assuming than those who aren’t; they are able to make their way into the inaccessible corners of a story because they are not pushing their way in. Rather, they are doing everything in their power to observe, listen, be respectful of, and adapt to their subjects’ surroundings. They try to understand and make a visible effort to do so, often breaking down walls through humor and self-awareness. They are aware of their own internal biases, and look for ways to address them.

For too long, newsrooms have been populated by a homogeneous class that assumes it knows more than it actually does. If newsrooms want access to stories in nuanced, riveting, previously unseen ways, then they should not only be placing high value on cultural competency, but actively training their journalists in how to report with cultural competency; they should be seeking out journalists who are culturally competent by birthright — those of us who have had to navigate the tension of having assumptions routinely made about us with grace and aplomb.”

 

Denise Ordway, Journalist’s Resource: How important were Spanish-language skills to reporting out this story?

Andrés Cediel: “Critical. It broke down many barriers for us, and meant we didn’t need a translator in the field, or in the edit room.”

Daffodil Altan: “The story could not have been reported and produced to the extent that it was (in-language interviews in Guatemala without a translator; an interview I did simultaneously in Spanish and English as the correspondent with a fugitive in Mexico; approaching reluctant immigrant sources fluidly) without Spanish. It simply could not have been done without a bilingual producing team (from correspondent to producer to DP [director of photography], sound, field producers and reporters).”

 

Denise Ordway, Journalist’s Resource:  As a longtime print journalist, I know how tough it is to get people to talk. I cannot imagine the additional difficulty in getting people to show their faces and tell their stories on film. Can you please offer a few pointers to help inexperienced journalists — two to three tips for getting reluctant sources to speak on camera?

Andrés Cediel: “It takes time, so you need to have patience, and not be surprised or discouraged when sources back out or get cold feet — it’s often part of the process and many times they come back around. Also, don’t try and convince them. Spend time listening to them and their motivations and fears. Oftentimes when they feel like they have been heard, and talked through some of their anxieties, they convince themselves. Be transparent: don’t make promises you can’t keep, be straight up about what potential consequences could be. A lot of hesitation comes from distrust and uncertainty, so if they feel like you are being straight up with them that takes away one worry.”

Journalists Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel interview a family at a home in Guatemala.
Interview with a family. (Photo by Pablo Solares)

Daffodil Altan: “Generally it is important to be transparent about your objectives, patient and tenacious. It also depends who the reluctant source is. If it is a person who has experienced trauma, patience and time are essential. If you are reporting a story that involves multiple victims/survivors of violence or trauma, you have to locate and make contact with as many of them as possible. Often only very few, if any, from a group, will decide to tell their story on camera. If you have the luxury and privilege of giving a traumatized source the time and space to consider why they would tell their story, it can make all the difference. You can’t quite rush someone who is in this kind of situation. You cannot convince someone like this to go on camera. The decision must come from them and they must have their own reasons, as well as a certain readiness, for wanting to share their story on camera.

If it is a government source, it matters who you are producing your piece for. It is often much easier to get a government source to agree to an on-camera interview if you are producing a piece for a reputable news organization. If you don’t yet have an outlet, but have an intended outlet and have made some headway, you can make that clear. Often, though, the interview is granted much more speedily once you have the outlet nailed.

If it is a known or potentially criminal source, often writing them letters in prison or meeting with them in person to explain your story, its goals, and why their version of the story matters, can go a long way. Criminal and/or potentially criminal sources may feel wrongly accused or wrongly perceived, and may be motivated to share their story in order to clarify what they feel may be misconceptions or false accusations.

If it is an industry source, showing up and knocking on a door or sending a snail mail letter to their home and explaining a little about the weight of your investigation and why it might be in their interest to speak to you does wonders for building a relationship that can potentially lead to an on-camera interview. But again, not unlike the traumatized source, the industry source has to be in a certain place where for reasons having to do with reputation, legacy, frustration, clarification, etc., they decide they are ready, and even want, to speak on camera.

 

Denise Ordway, Journalist’s Resource: When you’re interviewing a source on camera and you sense they’re not being truthful or not being completely truthful, what’s the best way to handle it?

Andrés Cediel: “Come back around to the question, restate, clarify. Let them make their error more explicitly.”

Daffodil Altan: “If you sense that the source is not being truthful, it is important to keep pressing for an answer by reframing the question several times in a non-overt way. In essence, you look for different ways to re-ask the question in order to see if the answer remains consistent or if there is a moment where the untruthfulness that you as the interviewer are either sensing or know to be actual, is revealed. It’s delicate, and it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it is camera gold.”

 

If you’re looking for more reporting insights, check out this tip sheet on journalist safety and self-care from the Columbia Journalism School and these 10 rules for reporting on trauma survivors.  

 

Last updated: February 27, 2019

 

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