“Investigative reporting is finding out things people don’t want you to know,” said media fellow Gary Cohn in his talk “Taking a Local Story Global.” Cohn, now a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, spoke September 25 about a Pulitzer Prize – winning investigative series of articles that he cowrote with Will Englund on the ship-breaking business, the process in which a ship is torn apart for scrap, while he was at the Baltimore Sun.
The story doesn’t begin, Cohn said, in the newsroom; it begins on the beat with the reporter observing and asking questions. Initially, Englund had observed an aircraft carrier being dismantled and written an article on it for the Baltimore Sun. The editor read the story and wondered if it was going on elsewhere. He then assigned Cohn and Englund to “really do a story.”
Before it was over, the story would take Cohn and Englund from Baltimore, across the United States, and finally to India. They began by doing research on the industry, on which there was very little background, and requested a list of ships from the navy, which led them to sites around the country. At every site they visited, Cohn said, there were problems.
To get the full story, they worked from the inside, Cohn said, by talking to the people doing the work. To get around the difficulty of not being allowed on the sites they would sit in their cars in the parking lot and follow workers home. The workers were happy to talk to them, he said, because they had no one else to talk to about the dangerous working conditions. Cohn and Englund also spoke to the owners of the companies contracted to do the work, who said that the work was more expensive than the navy had led them to believe, meaning they had to take shortcuts that jeopardized personal safety and the environment. The navy, upon realizing there were problems, planned to move the operations to India. “The work sites in India were atrocious,” said Cohn, “and made the U.S. sites look good.”
As a result of Cohn and Englund’s series, changes were made, including two sets of congressional hearings, policy changes by the navy, and ships no longer being sent abroad to be dismantled. “Newspapers have to cover their backyard, but not stop there,” Cohn said. “Pursue a story wherever it goes.”
The event was sponsored by the William and Barbara Edwards Media Fellow Program of Hoover Institution and the Stanford Alumni Association. The Edwards Media Fellows Program allows print and broadcast media professionals to spend time in residence at the Hoover Institution. Media fellows have the opportunity to exchange information and perspectives with Hoover scholars through seminars and informal meetings and with the Hoover and Stanford communities in public lectures. As fellows, they have the full range of research tools Hoover offers available to them. More than 100 of the nation's top journalists have visited the Hoover Institution recently and interacted with Hoover fellows on key public policy issues, including
Eric Pianin, Washington Post (in residence September 18 – 22)
Josh Green, Atlantic Monthly (September 18 – 22)
Ryan Lizza, New Republic (September 18 – 22)
Ben Wildavsky, U.S. News and World Report (September 11 – 15)
Liza Mundy,Washington Post (September 11 – 15)
Bob Drogin,Los Angeles Times (September 11 – 15)
Peter Scoblic, New Republic (September 4 – 8)
Lawrence Kaplan, New Republic (September 4 – 8)