KINGSTON, RI – April 8, 2022 – In their virtual presentation of the University of Rhode Island’s Taricani Lecture Series on First Amendment rights, investigative journalists Neil Bedi and Kathleen McGrory discussed the stories they have reported together at ProPublica and Tampa Bay Times.
The annual event is hosted by URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. This year’s conference was titled “Finding the Truth: Investigative Journalism in the Digital Age,” and was moderated by CNN anchor and chief national correspondent John King ’85, H’10.
McGrory and Bedi have been a reporting team for five years, produced three major investigative pieces, and won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of a Florida sheriff’s predictive policing program that used technology to determine criminals.” probable” – a system deemed to be largely unfair and discriminatory.
Bedi described the software developed by the sheriff as the culmination of data and intelligence obtained by police to assess residents of Pasco County, Florida on their likelihood of committing a crime. They would use the program to determine the individuals they thought were most likely to commit a crime and monitor them at a higher level.
The couple spent weeks crossing Florida and knocking on the doors of individuals they thought were being targeted by police because of the software, Bedi said.
“We were willing to talk to anyone who had experience with this program, good or bad, because that’s how journalism works,” Bedi said. “And it looks easier than it was. It was a lot of rejection. A lot of people had moved out so the current residents had no idea what we were talking about. A lot of people who didn’t want to talk to us didn’t trust journalists.
Eventually, Bedi and McGrory found families who knew about the program and who had been targeted. Bedi and McGrory obtained relevant information about the software from the sheriff’s office and learned that one in 10 people who had been targeted were underage and that the program was disrupting the lives of many families. Their series on the sheriff’s program, titled “Targeted”, appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in 2020.
In their talk, McGrory and Bedi also discussed their investigation into the alarming rate of child deaths at a Johns Hopkins pediatric hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. They also detailed their first story together, in 2017, where they examined dangerous conditions at a Tampa-based power plant that were killing unprecedented numbers of employees.
Both men described the most important lessons they learned from their investigations.
“The first thing is that this work requires documents and data,” McGrory said, “it’s not enough to report allegations.”
For their story about Johns Hopkins Children’s Hospital, McGrory said the pair used very large and complex datasets that they analyzed themselves, then asked experts in the field to review and verify for further guarantee accuracy.
McGrory, however, pointed out that data alone cannot drive the story – good journalism is driven by characters and stories.
“We could have said that children who had heart surgeries at this hospital were three times more likely to die than children who had heart surgeries at other hospitals in the state,” McGrory said. “What was much more powerful was telling you about the children who had lost their lives and the families they left behind.”
Bedi explained the importance of being fair and transparent when investigating and reporting. He said they offered everyone mentioned in the story the opportunity to respond to what was written in the article before it was published. They also sent a “no surprises” memo to sources who declined interviews so they could see what would be released and offered them one last chance to comment.
Their ultimate conclusion was that none of their reporting would have been possible without the First Amendment.
“All of the stories that we just talked about are stories that powerful people would like to keep hidden,” McGrory said. “It’s the job of journalists to unearth these stories in a fair and transparent way, to bring them to light and to provide this information to the community.
The First Amendment gives us the right to gather the information to disseminate the information. »
The Taricani Lecture Series is named after Rhode Island journalist Jim Taricani H’18. Taricani worked as an investigative reporter at WJAR-TV for over 30 years. His family and wife, Laurie White ’81, endowed the lecture series shortly after his passing in 2019 to honor his work, continue his legacy, and celebrate his unwavering faith in the First Amendment.
If you missed the April 5 discussion, you can still watch it on the conference webpage.
Kate LeBlanc, a journalism and political science major at the University of Rhode Island and an intern in the Department of Communications and Marketing, wrote this press release.