Roddy Boyd and Bernice Yeung are using new models to keep hard-hitting investigative reporting alive in the “fake news” era—bringing to light shady business practices contributing to the opioid crisis, and amplifying the voices of those largely overlooked by the #MeToo movement
Seven years ago, Roddy Boyd was attending a journalism conference when he came to a startling realization. He’d already had a long career exposing financial companies’ chicanery for the likes of the New York Post and Fortune before he was laid off after the financial crash of 2008. And he was well into writing his first book, an exposé of corporate insurance giant AIG. As he looked around at the conference, however, he realized that many of his colleagues had been laid off or taken buyouts from newspapers that had cratered in the past decade.
“All my peers from 15 years of reporting had gone,” he says, “and no one was doing business stuff.” Instead, the room was filled with reporters from nonprofits, including venerable outfits such as the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and upstarts like ProPublica. Sensing the winds, Boyd decided to start his own nonprofit focusing on financial investigations: the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, or SIRF, a reference to the surf culture in his hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina.
“I thought, ‘I’ll put on my Brooks Brothers suit and go to the Ford Foundation, and they’d give me money,’” he says. It didn’t quite work out that way. Still, Boyd persisted as SIRF’s sole journalist, peeling the tops off hedge funds and pharmaceutical firms to reveal rotten layers underneath. In the past six years, he has exposed frauds, scams, and lies that regulators have been unable or unwilling to uncover, and SIRF’s coverage has played a role in putting upward of 20 people in jail. “I personally don’t want to live in a world where corporations have only modest fear of government intervention,” he says. “Someone’s got to stand in the gap.”
Even as journalism has struggled in the past 20 years, investigative reporting has managed to survive, even thrive, reborn in new models that have reinvigorated its function as a watchdog on democracy. Oftentimes that means ferreting out stories the daily newspapers and TV news programs miss. That’s what CIR reporter Bernice Yeung has done in tackling harrowing stories of sexual violence against immigrants, years before the #MeToo movement made sexual assault mainstream news. First appearing in a pair of documentaries for PBS Frontline, her reporting has grown into a book, In a Day’s Work, published last March.
Boyd and Yeung use different skills, with Boyd performing a deep dive into complicated financial documents and Yeung patiently interviewing subjects in difficult situations, but both have shone a light in dark corners.
“When you hit that sweet spot of strong edited reporting with a strong human story,” Yeung says, “you show people why they should care about an issue—and how we should rethink things that are doing people harm.”
Two Worlds on Wall Street
Boyd grew up in Westchester County, where his father was a hedge-fund manager. He always wanted to be a journalist. At Fordham, he wrote for the paper, an alternative weekly that saw itself as a campus watchdog. He recalls how he and his fellow reporters investigated crime on campus. They assumed most of the crime would be coming from off campus; when they looked at the data, however, they realized that 80 percent was student-on-student crime. “It was a really powerful moment to me; you could walk into something with a totally fixed preconception, but then the data shows you things that will change your view,” he says.
That combination of targeting hard issues and supporting them with data would come to define Boyd’s career as a reporter—but first, he says, “life threw me a curveball.”
After college, his girlfriend (now wife) Laura Ann Caprioglio, FCRH ’90, became pregnant. In order to support his new family, Boyd took a job on Wall Street, working at his father’s hedge fund for eight years. In retrospect, the experience was invaluable for a future financial reporter. “I met a lot of CEOs and CFOs, and with a couple of drinks in them, what they said was very different than what they said on the conference calls,” he says. He got the sense there were two worlds on Wall Street—one generating incredible wealth and prosperity through the free market, the other hurting real people through instances of fraud and greed.
Boyd became committed to exposing that world, writing first for the now-defunct New York Sun. He dug into the financial documents of companies to find out what they weren’t saying in public. “You really get a hell of a thrill when you’ve got a conference call transcript in your left hand assuring you all is well, and you’ve got an exhibit from a buried state lawsuit in your other hand where they are clearly doing the precise mathematical opposite,” he says.
While working at the Sun in 2004, Boyd began investigating insurance giant AIG. When the financial crisis occurred a few years later, he saw the company’s habit of insuring banks without hedging its investments as a perfect microcosm for everything wrong with Wall Street. “The world frigging changed on its axis, and AIG was ground zero for all of it,” he says. “To use a phrase, ‘All of the devils were there.’”
After Fortune laid him off in 2009, he turned his reporting into a book, Fatal Risk: A Cautionary Tale of AIG’s Corporate Suicide, published in 2011. By this point, Boyd and his family had moved to North Carolina, and he had started a blog that eventually grew into SIRF. One of his first targets was Anthony Davian, a hedge-fund manager who was siphoning off thousands of dollars into his own pockets. He ultimately pleaded guilty to 14 counts of fraud and money laundering, and was sentenced to 57 months in prison. In raving about Boyd’s work, the Columbia Journalism Review commented that “this kind of story is enough of a high-wire act when you’ve got a big media corporation and its well-paid legal team behind you. It’s something else when you don’t have that.” But Boyd, the magazine said, “had the reporting nailed down.”
Exposing Pharmaceutical Fraud
More recently, Boyd has turned his attention to the pharmaceutical industry. For one story, he spent countless hours investigating Insys, a drug company producing a late-stage cancer drug called Subsys that led to some complications, including several deaths. Boyd pored over legal and financial filings to reveal a clear pattern in which Subsys was being prescribed by doctors for all kinds of ailments it was never intended to treat, in exchange for cash bribes from the company. “These products were being sold fraudulently and abusively,” he says, “and they were making many more corpses than they were helping people.”
Boyd says he drove himself into debt traveling around the country to talk with patients and their families, but the stories he heard kept him going. “Thousands of people were overdosing on this stuff, and it wasn’t being reported. They were selling something a hundred times more powerful than battlefield morphine and talking about it like it was a hamburger from Hardee’s. I had total moral outrage and conviction that this company was worse than the Mafia.”
When Boyd’s series came out in 2015, the company was rocked by the allegations. Multiple doctors went to jail for their participation in the kickback scheme, and the top executives were arrested.
Over the past five years, Boyd gradually built up his nonprofit through grants of $100,000 to $150,000 a year. This past year, he saw a huge jump to more than $600,000, driven by several large contributions from financial executives, with more than half of that funding coming from Wall Street short-seller Marc Cohodes. His first goal after receiving that money will be to turn his eye back on the financial markets. “I don’t want there to be any suggestion I am getting paid off,” he says, and besides, “there are some damn interesting stories that are largely untold.”
Rape in the Fields
At the time that Bernice Yeung began reporting about rape and sexual harassment in the fields of California, that story was largely untold as well. The story began as a tip from a University of California, Berkeley, student who was doing a summer internship at CIR and had heard about a farmworker who had been forced by her supervisor to have sex with him for years as a condition of keeping her job. That led Yeung and her colleagues to ask a classic journalist’s question: “Was this an isolated incident, or is this part of a larger phenomenon?”
It was a difficult question to answer. After all, Yeung and her fellow reporters couldn’t just go into the fields and start interviewing people. Even if they could find women and men who had experienced sexual abuse, they were likely to be hesitant to talk with strangers. “People don’t want to talk to journalists about this for the same reason they don’t want to report it,” Yeung says. “Shame, self-blame, fear of not being believed. Then you add to that the challenges of immigrant status and poverty.”
Yeung and her colleagues started with a few cases that, against the odds, had been reported to the courts, where documents could help fill in the gaps and offer some corroboration for details. In talking with the women (and a few men), they still had to overcome the barriers to discussing such a taboo subject; oftentimes, they let women choose where they wanted to do the interviews, or talk off the record until they were comfortable. Some interviews led to others, revealing hundreds of cases in which women were raped and abused with impunity by supervisors in the fields. Even when women came forward to report years of abuse, their attackers were rarely prosecuted, and labor contractors who employed them rarely punished.
In talking with subjects, Yeung drew upon the training she’d received at Fordham. She had grown up in San Jose, California, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who came to work in Silicon Valley. She originally thought she might be a music journalist, but that all changed when as an undergrad at Northwestern she discovered the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted inmates. “That was a complete game changer for me,” she says. She began doing investigative reporting, moving back to the Bay Area to work at SF Weekly. Even as she wrote about tobacco companies and school funding, she felt she needed a stronger grounding in the topics she was covering.
While reporting on criminal justice issues, she spoke with Fordham sociology professor Jeanne Flavin, Ph.D., and began considering grad school. “It just seemed to fit,” she says. At Fordham, Flavin became her adviser for her thesis, which examined procedural justice, a movement to treat citizens with dignity and respect in the Bronx criminal court. Her sociology training helped her become a better interviewer, she says, by showing her how to think critically about the power dynamics between investigative reporters and vulnerable subjects. “It gave me the vocabulary to think through the thorny ethical issues about how we get informed consent.”
When the documentary Rape in the Fields finally aired in June 2013, it didn’t have an immediate effect. “It was a little of that deafening silence,” Yeung says. At screenings of the film held in farmworker communities, however, she was amazed to see how personally affected many in the audience became. “Women would get up and talk about how they had experienced something similar, and were sharing it publicly for the first time,” she says. As attention built, calls grew to pass legislation to deal with the issue. Finally, in September 2014, California passed a law to require sexual harassment training of all labor contractors, with provisions to revoke the license of contractors who hired supervisors who sexually harassed their workers. “That’s the gold standard,” Yeung says, “when you can affect policy.”
Seizing the MeToo# Moment
Even after that success, Yeung doggedly continued her reporting on sexual violence. When Rape in the Fields aired, she was contacted by an editor from the New Press about the possibility of turning the subject into a book; by that time, Yeung was already on to a new topic, examining sexual abuse among janitorial workers in offices on the night shift. She helped to produce the documentary Rape on the Night Shift while gathering material for the book, In a Day’s Work.
“I think the book was already out of my hands before Weinstein,” she says, referring to the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein that ignited the #MeToo movement, exposing sexual transgressions by powerful men in media, politics, and the arts. “#MeToo has created this opening, and is not going away,” she says. “I hope that we get to the point where we are not focused purely on reporting after the fact but thinking more about the mechanisms we can put in place to prevent this.”
In a Day’s Work is refreshing in not only focusing on the problem but also weaving in stories of activists and policymakers working to address it. “Investigative journalism can be heavy and, frankly, depressing,” she says. “I wanted to not leave people feeling like they are powerless in the end.”
Yeung is heartened by the resurgence of interest in investigative reporting. She sees a hybrid model of newspapers partnering with nonprofits to pull off complicated, important stories. “I think it is especially important at this moment in time when things seem very polarized and there are all these claims of ‘fake news,’” she says. “The power of investigative reporting is in really digging into a topic, but also providing the necessary context historically, socially, and culturally so we can come away with a better understanding in the end.”
—Michael Blanding is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.