June 17, 2024

Event Coverage Highlight

‘How I Did It’: Morton Frank Award Winners Give Advice on Collaboration and Security During Program on Sugar Story

by Chad Bouchard

Members of the award-winning team that reported on abuses in the sugar industry in the Dominican Republic said staying flexible in your story concept and building a strong, equal collaboration were keys to their success in their investigation.

On June 23, reporters Sandy Tolan and Euclides Cordero Nuel joined editor and producer Michael Montgomery to discuss behind-the-scenes insights about their project, “The Bitter Work Behind Sugar,” produced for Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The story, which had support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, won this year’s Morton Frank Award. It was distributed by PRX and a text version was published in Mother Jones.

The moderator was OPC Governor Marina Walker Guevara, executive editor of The Pulitzer Center.

Tolan said the idea for the story goes back as far as the early 1990s, when he reported in the Dominican Republic for NPR for a series on sugar cane cutters.

“The situation was so terrible then. I’d scarcely ever seen anything like it. There were child workers in their early teens or even younger. Some had been kidnapped. There were grownups and children locked behind gates, being protected by armed guards, and essentially forced to cut sugar cane. It was hardly distinguishable from slavery.”

At the time, he met a 14-year-old worker named Lulu Pierre who had been kidnapped on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border and forced to cut cane. Tolan and his colleague gave some money to help find him and return home. Despite repeated efforts, he never found out what happened to Pierre.

The recent story for Reveal and Mother Jones began as an effort to find Pierre. In 2019, Tolan travelled back to the Dominican Republic, where he met Cordero Nuel. The two did not find Pierre, but began to collaborate on a story about ongoing abuses in the sugar industry.

“You have to know when the story is changing, and then what to do about it,” Tolan said. “The story is never going to be exactly what you think it’s going to be, because otherwise why bother leaving the newsroom, or your computer?”

The team’s investigation revealed conditions had only barely changed since the 1990s, with workers at the sugar giant Central Romana Corporation earning less than $4 per day, mired in debt, and living in overcrowded conditions without access to proper medical care. Their reporting included visits to 10 work batayes, or work camps, more than 100 interviews and numerous documents from government agencies and lawsuits.

Tolan said he and Cordero Nuel took many precautions as they spoke to workers and reported on the ground, such as keeping interviews within 10 to 30 minutes, parking their car in hidden places, and switching cellphones to airplane mode to prevent location tracking.

“One of the disadvantages is we didn’t get the life stories sometimes that we wanted, with those long interviews you do to get into the history and [explore] why did you come and how did you feel.”

Cordero Nuel recounted a risky attempt to document workers mixing pesticides in open vats without protection. He said he followed workers very early one morning.

“I hid myself in the middle of the sugar cane [fields]. When the cars brought all of the gallons of stuff to work, I followed them, and gave them distance so they didn’t have time to stop me. I gave them about 20 minutes to have everything down and open the gallons [of chemicals] and mix everything.”

Cordero Nuel urged journalists to follow their inspiration, but to take precautions.

“Let your passion lead you if you are a journalist. Protect yourself if the place where you are reporting on is dangerous.”

After the story was published, Cordero Nuel moved to a new location with his wife and child due to safety concerns and advice from the Committee to Protect Journalists and other advisors.

Montgomery’s advice to producers is to forge balanced collaborations between reporters on the ground and foreign correspondents.

“Build partnerships based on trust. I think that was really essential to this, and we all respected each other, we had slightly different roles. Had that not worked, I don’t think this investigation would have been as successful as it was.”

Click the window below to watch a playlist of video clips from our program on YouTube.