Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team visits Brandeis
The team spoke to students about the steps of their investigation process and their use of digital journalism.
On Monday, Nov. 15, the Brandeis Journalism program hosted the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe team behind the investigative piece “Blind Spot.” “Blind Spot,” a multi-part composition, employs traditional, written articles in tandem with multimedia journalism through a 15 minute documentary. It uncovers the dangers of poor licensing regulation by government agencies and major issues within the trucking industry that allow people whose licenses should be revoked to drive freely.
The event started with an introduction from University President Ron Liebowitz, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Dorothy Hodgson, Director of the Journalism Program Neil Swidey and the Journalism department’s Assistant Director for Internships and Outreach, Rachel Raczka. The panelists from the Globe included Deputy Projects Editor Brendan McCarthy, Audience Experience and Engagement and Project Manager Heather Ciras, video producer Caitlin Healy and reporters Evan Allen and Laura Crimaldi in person. Reporters Vernal Coleman and Matt Rocheleau joined via Zoom.
Each member of the award-winning team shared a step in the process of making this piece and later provided an opportunity for attendees to ask questions. The discussion began with the panelists answering a question posed by Raczka: “How do they take all of that data and research and make it into something amazing?”
The story emerged following a tragedy in New Hampshire where seven motorcyclists, part of a motorcycle group called “Jarheads,” were killed when a truck collided with them. The truck driver was under the influence of cocaine and heroin. The Globe jumped into action to cover the story, and as McCarthy explained, “Within days, within weeks, the team found that this gentleman [the truck driver], Volodymyr Zhukovskyy shouldn’t have been on the road.” Due to other road violations and warnings from other states, his license should have been suspended prior to this incident. Zhukovskyy’s case revealed a greater issue within the trucking industry and with licensing, and McCarthy recalled the realization, “We think something bigger’s going on here.” Similarly, Rocheleau said that “The scope of [the story] widened...[Zhukovskyy] was just one example of thousands in the state who shouldn’t have been licensed.”
The team started researching and reaching out to different states’ public agencies. The Globe’s inquiries caused these agencies to take action, investigating their systems and policies and suspending licenses before the story was even published.
More stories surfaced about fatal accidents caused by people whose licenses should have been suspended but were not because of a lack of communication between states or agencies simply not opening their mail. Coleman and Rocheleau jumped into this first part of the story focusing on licensing, trying to find the people who fell through the cracks of the bureaucratic systems. Coleman explained that “driving is inherently dangerous… people make bad decisions,” but they might not have made those bad decisions had the agency suspended them. There is a “level of cognitive dissonance of a government agency that screwed up,” Coleman said. In their research, Coleman and Rocheleau discovered that there were no proper procedures in place in these government agencies to keep track of people who should not have been on the road and ensure that they were suspending licenses that need to be suspended. “The steps that they had been taking...they argued that they were apparently enough...and I couldn’t have been more shocked by that...they were not and could not be bothered to take an extra step,” Coleman reflected. Rocheleau felt similarly, and said that it was “pretty startling to learn all these things.”
Allen and Crimaldi took the lead on the second section of the investigation, centered around the trucking industry. The investigation began by looking into the trucking company that employed Zhukovskyy — Westfield Transport — and found a general lack of regulation within the trucking industry at large. “People described [the regulated trucking system] as being like the ‘Wild West’,” Allen said. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration lacks the bandwidth to be regulating every single trucking company, leaving unsafe companies such as Westfield Transport, who “had no safety plan or drug-testing program, employed another driver with a suspended license, and falsified records to appear to comply with federal regulations governing how long drivers can work,” according to one of the articles published in the investigative piece, on the road. Almost 5000 people per year are killed in crashes with trucks and their exploration of the topic brought new meaning to the numbers they found. “If there are five trucks, one shouldn’t be on the road,” Allen said. With the articles they wrote and the information they gathered, “We were showing an entire regulatory system and industry that created the Volodymyr Zhukovskyys of the world,” Crimaldi said.
Allen also shared a bit of advice to students on acquiring information from people in positions of authority. She explained that you need to “come armed with information,” and show the authority figures that you are prepared and knowledgeable about the topic. She explained that you need to put these people in a position where they have no choice but to respond to your questions. She also warned students that “you’re going to get yelled at,” but that in her experience, “the louder people are the more likely that they’re wrong.” On a similar note, Coleman shared that “there’s absolutely nothing like going after people who absolutely deserve it and in the interest of the public.”
Through their research and work, the Globe team provided a platform to those impacted by the fatal results of the faulty trucking industry and lack of procedures with agencies regarding passenger licensing. Sometimes change is made as a result of these investigations — which was the case with the Globe’s investigation — but sometimes things stay the same, Allen explained. She made it clear that it is crucial to be upfront with sources that their interview might not bring justice to the topic. Allen recalled a time when a woman who was involved in an accident that she was interviewing said, “I want to talk to you but will you be able to help me?” While Allen could not conclude whether she would be able to help, she could reassure the woman that “what happened to you wasn’t right and people should know about it.” Crimaldi also concluded, “You shouldn't underestimate how appreciative people are when you let them tell their stories… That’s what they are going to remember.”
A principal aspect of the Globe team’s visit was to provide insight into how technology added another dimension to the story. Ciras explained that “we have a really good body of work that shows what an investigation should look like in modern times.” The investigation was published in a new way, with a focus on digital journalism. Ciras said that they have been doing digital journalism for 10 years and traditional journalism for 150.
Ciras said the team was faced with the question, “What do we want [the story] to feel like online?” Healy, the video producer, had to come up with a way to answer the questions: “How can video take you somewhere that you couldn’t go?” and “How do you translate a feeling into something visual?” Healy said that to convey the feeling of dread present in so much of the piece, she would drive around at night to collect b-roll. She also worked closely with the reporters and recorded interviews. Healy’s role was “allowing video to do what it does best and capture human voice,” she said. They made a trailer with the purpose of piquing interest on the topics covered, and all the content ultimately came together in a documentary short that they put out on social media, to reach as many demographics as they could — a goal outlined by Ciras.
Throughout the night, the team emphasized the themes of collaboration in the newsroom and using emotions such as anger and rage to fuel an investigation. Ciras, whose job is “to convene everybody and help everybody collaborate,” stressed the idea that since everyone involved had the same motive — to do their best work and produce the best final product possible — people did not argue too much. “There [weren’t] a lot of sharp elbows,” she said. Generally speaking, “everything in a newsroom is collaborative,” Ciras said. Many of the journalists on the panel spoke about the shock and anger they felt when investigating this topic and finding out new details. Allen said, “I wake up outraged...there is a lot to be mad about and you should be mad about it.”
— Editor's note: Editor Gilda Geist works in the Journalism department and did not report on or edit this story.