The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has bestowed its 2016 Selden Ring Award to The Associated Press for a series of stories that showed how seafood sold in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants had been produced by slaves.
The AP work prompted reforms and prosecutions — and the release of more than 2,000 people who had been held captive in horrific circumstances.
“Seafood From Slaves,” by Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza, shook the $7 billion-a-year Thai seafood export industry. The journalists not only tracked down captives and documented their conditions; they followed specific loads of slave-caught seafood to supply chains of particular brands and stores.
The $35,000 annual award, which the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg has presented for 27 years, honors the year’s outstanding work in investigative journalism that led to direct results.
Above and beyond
An excerpt from the judges’ statement:
“Slavery at sea has been the subject of substantial journalism before, but the AP team went to new lengths to expose an abusive system from start to finish. They followed the trail to a tiny island in Indonesia, giving voice to those being held against their will and forced to work for nothing. That led to a follow-up story, documenting the freeing of captives spurred by the original report.
“The AP team kept going from there. They logged the names of ships carrying seafood caught by slaves and used satellite data to track where they went and which companies sold the cargo. Reporters watched trucks being unloaded, following them to cold storage and processing factories that shipped the seafood abroad. Bit by bit, they put together a list of companies selling cargo caught by slaves and then connected that cargo to U.S. distributors.”
Mendoza, an AP National Writer who works out of Santa Cruz, Calif., explained the impetus of the project by the team that included McDowell and Htusan in Myanmar and Mason in Indonesia.
“The issue had been bubbling up a little in Southeast Asia, as some slaves escaped — but it hadn’t been getting much attention,” Mendoza said. “We set out to do two things that hadn’t been done before. One was to find people currently working as slaves, to put an end to the suggestions that the problem was behind us. The second thing was to specifically track the supply chain to the major retailers, so they could no longer disassociate themselves from the labor abuse.”
Spotlight on abuse
Winning the Selden Ring Award will bring more attention to the issue, Mendoza said. “The enslaved people were risking their lives when they spoke to us. Yet they told their stories with courage and integrity. They deserve the recognition.”
The AP’s entry letter described the lengths reporters went to as they tracked shipments of seafood, after finding slaves in cages on the remote Indonesian island of Benjina:
“On the island, the reporters logged the names of ships loaded with slave-caught seafood, then used satellite data to track them. One ship went to a Thai seaport, and so did our reporters. For four days, they hid in the back of a small truck, scrunched down behind tinted windows because the area was patrolled by gunmen for the fish mafia. The reporters watched as the seafood was unloaded into trucks, and they followed the trucks to cold storage and processing factories that then ship the seafood abroad.”
Before publishing the initial report in March 2015, the AP made sure the captives they quoted and photographed would not be punished or killed. The journalists received help from the International Organization for Migration, which arranged for their rescue.
Other slaves in Thailand
The reporting revealed more slavery in Thailand, where government officials had claimed the problem had been resolved. The team found children and migrants locked in filthy working conditions, peeling shrimp in fetid processing sheds. The investigation linked the sheds to supply chains that reach European and Asian markets and U.S. restaurants and chains including Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods and Red Lobster.
The impact of the reporting was swift and extensive. According to the AP, “The United Nations is now investigating labor abuses in supply chains, as are local district attorneys and federal law enforcement agencies. The European Union warned Thailand that it risked an EU seafood import ban if it failed to deal promptly with slavery in the industry. And the U.S. State Department cited the reporting when it kept Thailand on its blacklist for human trafficking.”
U.S. legislation has since been introduced that would require greater transparency from food suppliers.
The Selden Ring Award underscores the importance of investigative journalism, which is extensive, time-consuming, uncomfortable and challenging.
“The Selden Ring Award underscores the importance of investigative journalism, which is extensive, time-consuming, uncomfortable and challenging,” Mendoza said. “This project really made a difference in people’s lives, and the award recognizes that.”
Two finalists honored
The judges also recognized the impressive work of two finalists:
- The Tampa Bay Times, for its “sweeping 18-month investigation into the lowest performing schools of Pinellas County, Fla. — all low-income, predominantly black campuses that had been resegregated by school leaders and had gotten markedly worse in just a few short years. The reporting team analyzed millions of rows of data on student performance and told the stories of children who were failed by the system. The work, heartbreaking and thorough, has prompted immediate change and calls for more far-reaching reforms that have the potential to help generations of children.”
- The Washington Post, for its “exhaustive, even-handed, illuminating exploration of fatal shootings by police officers in the United States, a project that exposed flaws in government recordkeeping and contradicted some popular assumptions.”
“With over 80 entries representing a significant amount of high-quality, investigative reporting, the field this year was extremely competitive,” said Willow Bay, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.
“We would like to thank the Selden Ring 2016 judges’ panel, which included some of the best investigative journalists in the business, for the work they put into selecting the winner. It is truly an honor for USC Annenberg to present this prestigious award.”
The Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting was established in 1989 by the late Selden Ring, a Southern California business leader and philanthropist. He established the award to honor journalists whose investigative reporting informed the public about major problems or corruption in society and yielded concrete results. The award continues in his name thanks to the generous support of the Ring Foundation.