What is Florence Graves doing NOW?

She talks about the benefits of learning investigative journalism skills and her hopes for the future as the media struggles in a slumping economy

Florence Graves
Florence George Graves is the founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, where she is building a core staff of experienced journalists to conduct major investigative projects while involving students in in-depth reporting. Since 1996 she has been a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. As an award-winning investigative reporter and magazine editor, she has focused largely on investigating and exposing political, government, and corporate abuses of power, particularly in Washington. Her work as a reporter for The Washington Post and as founder and editor of the muckraking Washington-based Common Cause Magazine has led to a number of congressional hearings and government probes and to several reforms in public policies.

BrandeisNOW: What are you working on right now in the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism?

FG: We have several things underway. We are continuing our year-long investigation of corruption in international adoption. Foreign Policy Magazine published our anchor article by associate director and senior researcher E.J. Graff, which outlined the systemic problems through which – sometimes – the prospect of Western money can induce unscrupulous actors to buy, defraud, coerce, or kidnap a child away from its family to sell for adoption. No adoptive parent wants to pay someone to steal a child—and yet sometimes that’s what happens with their dollars or euros.  In an innovative use of our website, we have organized and posted the documentation behind our investigation.

As you know, the institute is one of only a handful of independent reporting centers in the country. We are the first one based at a university—and the only one whose central focus is social justice and human rights. The adoption corruption investigation is an example of our commitment to undertaking "impact journalism," in which our small staff of experienced journalists tackles in-depth reporting projects that can both break important news and potentially jumpstart public policy discussions about crucial and under-reported injustices. Our piece in Foreign Policy is a perfect example of our strategy: maximize the impact of our investigations by taking the results of our research public via broadcasts, websites, and mainstream and thought-leader publications that help set the public agenda—and to use our own website to add greater depth and extend our reach.

BrandeisNOW: Could you tell us a little more about the reaction to the Foreign Policy piece and the media attention that you have received afterwards?

FG: We’re posting a lot of the responses on our website. More than 100 bloggers and listservs have linked to and commented on our investigation; scores of people have written to us. The Washington Post Sunday Outlook section published a full page of related articles by E.J. Graff, illustrating the “orphan manufacturing chain” through which children who already have families can be transformed into “orphans” for international adoption.

And the work is being picked up by media and redistributed by NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) all over the world. We’ve heard from adoption officials and child welfare advocates in places like Australia, Germany, and Nepal. We’ve had an amazing response from UNICEF, the United Nations organization devoted to children’s well-being. One official there told us that this has been perhaps the most important article that’s been done on this subject -- that it has helped change the debate and improve people’s understanding about how Western money can, instead of saving orphans, unintentionally create them. And this week, a Brandeis alumnus who is an adoption professional told us that our investigative work has really shaken up the adoption industry. 

We are very proud of having the advantage of being a non-profit based at a university with so many prestigious professors and scholars—a university whose core values include pursuing “truth, even unto its innermost parts.” We’ve used that advantage to put our supporting documentation on our website, including an interactive map of the world where you can click on a various countries to see where we have found documentation of corruption – and find out what the situation has been in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala, Nepal, Ethiopia, and many more. Here you can see for yourself the evidence that led to our articles. We’ve heard from several experts that we have created the world’s most comprehensive site on corruption in international adoption.   

BrandeisNOW: We’re looking at this map right now. How do you put together something like this without an enormous staff?

FG: We have a tiny staff: only three full-time people and a couple who are part time. We could not be doing what we are doing without hiring Brandeis students as research assistants. They are enthusiastic, very smart, and dogged! We hire them after they show they are committed to investigating social injustices. Under our direction, they have helped us find and organize the amazing amounts of information needed for our investigative articles.

We don’t just pay them; we also mentor them, both directly and indirectly, in an apprenticeship system. They get real-life work experience—and in doing so, they see the urgency of thorough and accurate research, and learn to think critically about social issues, not in an abstract way but when dealing with real people in very messy situations, whether that’s someone who has discovered that her adopted child was stolen, someone who was wrongly imprisoned, or a teenager who was sexually assaulted on her after-school job and got no response from management when she complained. Most are paid, although a few receive academic credit toward a journalism minor. We have helped our students go on to some really terrific jobs. 

BrandeisNOW: We know there have been a lot of budget cuts in print and broadcast newsrooms, and a lot of these cuts are in investigative journalism.  What are you telling students who are interested in investigative journalism when there is not a lot of it being done outside of institutes like yours? 

FG: We are more of an information society today than we’ve ever been—and there will be always a need for accurate information. Yes, right now, we’re now in the middle of a huge transformation in the print industry, and it’s not clear how it’s all going to shake out. But look at the vibrancy of news sites on the Internet alone. People are passionately interested in verified, trustworthy information. I am confident that at some point, as this technological upheaval settles down, more journalists will be able to get well-paid jobs, albeit in new kinds of outlets.
Meanwhile, the training in investigative reporting we offer our student research assistants is quite rigorous. Students learn research and analytical skills that they can transfer to many other kinds of work: public service, government, law, or academics. We gain a great deal by hiring students from a wide variety of majors; many legal studies students come our way. And we hired a neuroscience major who was a huge help on our Justice Brandeis Innocence Project case of probable wrongful conviction. We needed someone to look at the forensic reports in a murder case, to help us determine whether this inmate may in fact be innocent. This inmate’s case had been referred to us by the New England Innocence Project, which believed there was a good chance he was wrongly convicted. But NEIP only works on cases in which there is DNA evidence that can be tested, and this inmate’s file had no available DNA evidence, so they sent it our way. Using her science background, our neuroscience research assistant put together a very important report for us—and because she was here, she tells us, she reconsidered her future and went into public health instead of medicine.
BrandeisNOW: It’s helpful to know that these skills can be used by students in many different careers, but specifically looking at investigative journalism, how can we turn things around? Or can we?

FG: I don’t think anyone knows right now what the answer is. We’re in the middle of a huge shift. It’s really a revolution. In some ways, it is comparable to late 1950s and 60s when television became a mass medium, forcing magazines to change. Before then, the weekly Life and Look magazines came into homes and informed many people about the news. They gave Americans the shared narrative and understanding about what was really happening. When television became the mass medium for information and advertising, it forced the entire magazine industry to transform into niche publications. That’s what the Internet is doing now to print. To respond to this shift, people are trying many different things, and no one knows which will succeed.

Meanwhile, many news organizations are cutting investigative reporting (which was never a huge part of any newspaper’s budget). That’s leaving a big void in watchdog reporting, which is essential to a democracy. Imagine if more and better investigative journalism had been focused on the past decade’s mortgage and financial industries. Or imagine if there had been more investigation, not just commentary, into the buildup to the Iraq War. We might be looking at a very different world right now.

And we know from history that corruption in government is ongoing. Not even President Barack Obama can change that entirely. Public servants actually depend on journalists to act as watchdogs of government processes. They depend on investigative journalists to help them know where they should be focusing. The truth is—as many Capitol Hill and other government officials have told me—they don’t have the resources to investigate either. When it works well, the media really do function as the Fourth Estate to help check power.

When we created the Schuster Institute back in 2004—just five years ago—our model was really new. The idea that nonprofit journalism was needed to help the news media fulfill its constitutional function as a watchdog on democracy: that was very cutting edge. We had to convince people that investigative reporting was in big trouble. But Elaine Schuster quickly and intuitively understood the problem, and she and her husband Gerald--the Insitute bears their names--got behind the idea. And university leaders had the vision to open this institute at Brandeis. We’re very lucky to be here. The institute’s work really does reflect two of the four key four pillars at Brandeis: the commitment to academic excellence to and to social justice.

Are there any other projects you would like to mention that you’re working on now or in the future?

FG: Yes. We are very excited about a current collaboration with PBS’s Friday evening news program NOW, which is doing a segment based on E.J. Graff’s extensive investigation into the very serious problem of teenagers being sexually harassed in the workplace. It’s tentatively scheduled to air in late February, although that could change. We’re planning to have an interactive map on our website to show the extent of the problem all across the United States. E.J. Graff will be interviewed as an expert for that program.

BrandeisNOW: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

One of my long-term goals now is to raise the funding to hire a full-time Justice Brandeis Innocence Project director. Academic studies have revealed that there are probably tens of thousands of innocent people in prison in Massachusetts alone. And as I mentioned, the New England Innocence Project can only look at cases where there is DNA evidence available to test, potentially determining innocence or guilt. And investigative journalists have the skills needed to dig deeply into cases where there is no DNA to test. We have made amazing progress on our current case.

I believe we could make a huge contribution in this area—and I feel a moral obligation to try. The thought that thousands of people being unjustly held in prison for their entire lives for crimes they did not commit—well, that is horrifying to me.  And it should be untenable to all of us who value freedom.  I hope to find people who agree with me and who have the resources to help us. If someone who reads this is interested, they may reach me at fgraves@brandeis.edu.
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