KINGSTON, R.I. – 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’ve reported on together while at ProPublica and the Tampa Bay Times.
The annual event is hosted by URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. This year’s lecture was entitled “Finding the Truth: Investigative Journalism in the Digital Era,” and moderated by CNN Anchor and Chief National Correspondent John King ‘85, H’10.
McGrory and Bedi have been a reporting team for five years, have produced three major investigative pieces and won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation into a Florida sheriff’s predictive policing program that used technology to determine “likely” criminals – a system found to be largely unfair and discriminatory.
Bedi described the software the sheriff developed as a culmination of the data and intelligence the police obtained to score Pasco County, Florida residents on their likelihood to commit a crime. They would use the program to determine individuals they thought were most likely to commit a crime and monitor them at a higher level.
The pair spent weeks driving across Florida and knocking on the doors of individuals they believed were being targeted by the 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 sounds easier than it was. It was a lot of rejection. A lot of people had moved 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 that knew about the program and had been targeted. Bedi and McGrory got a hold of relevant information about the software from the sheriff’s office and learned that 1 in 10 people who had been targeted were minors, and the program was disrupting the lives of many families. Their series on the sheriff’s program, entitled “Targeted,” came out in the Tampa Bay Times in 2020.
In their lecture, 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 an unprecedented number of employees.
The pair outlined the most important lessons they’ve learned through their investigations.
“The first thing is that this work requires documents and data,” McGrory said, “It isn’t enough just to report on allegations.”
For their story on the Johns Hopkins children’s hospital, McGrory said the pair used very large and complex data sets that they analyzed themselves and then had experts in the field review and verify to further ensure accuracy.
McGrory emphasized, however, that data cannot carry the story alone – good journalism is driven by characters and stories.
“We could have said that children who had heart surgeries at this hospital were three times as likely to die as children who had heart surgeries at other hospitals in the state,” McGrory said. “What was far more powerful was to tell you about the children who had lost their lives and about the families they left behind.”
Bedi explained the importance of being fair and transparent when investigating and reporting stories. He said they offered all of the individuals mentioned in the story the chance to respond to what was written in the piece before publication. They also sent out a “no surprises” memo to sources that declined interviews so they could see what would be published and offered them a last chance to comment.
Their final takeaway was the understanding that none of their reporting would have been possible without the First Amendment.
“All of the stories that we’ve just talked about are stories that powerful people would like to remain hidden,” McGrory said. “It is the job of the journalists to unearth those stories in a fair and transparent way, to shine light on them and provide that 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 for Rhode Island journalist Jim Taricani H’18. Taricani worked as an investigative reporter at WJAR-TV for more than 30 years. His family and wife, Laurie White ‘81, endowed the lecture series shortly after he passed away in 2019 to honor his work, to continue his legacy and to celebrate his steadfast belief in the First Amendment.
If you missed the April 5 discussion, you can still watch it at the lecture’s webpage.
Kate LeBlanc, a senior 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.