Interview: Walt Bogdanich, assistant editor, Investigative Desk, New York Times, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
I had a great opportunity to meet Mr Bogdanich to discuss his prize-winning series on how counterfeit glycerin – in this case ethylene glycol produced in China found way into the pharmaceutical supply chain in many countries causing death for hundreds of unsuspecting patients. He spoke about putting the pieces together across four continents with a Jake Hooker, a colleague in
Q1: How did the germ of the story develop?
In 2006, as patients in
I told my editor Matt Purdy, that I wanted to investigate the
Q2: How did you plan and execute the story?
I wanted shipping and sales records to document precisely how the poison moved from manufacturer to patient. I eventually got the records - from non-governmental sources - and they confirmed my suspicions: the
Q3: Describe the how you made connections with the developments in
I got in touch with the Times’ foreign desk that put me to Jake Hooker in
Hooker spoke to many people outside the factory - truckers, farmers living beside factory, salesmen among others. He could speak Chinese. He therefore had access to public records.
Companies must file reports with the local branch of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, and these reports have names and addresses of employees, a list of licensed products, and annual inspections from regulatory agencies. Chemical plants must also declare the main ingredients they use to make their products, as part of environmental assessments.
The clinching moment was when Hooker managed to get in touch with another counterfeiter. We had an opportunity to look into his mind to know how he operated.
We found that these counterfeiters and manufacturers used a route across various countries where inspections at ports and custom checkpoints were the least. The Free Trade Areas (FTAs) were used for this purpose.
Q4: How difficult is it to gain access to public records – medical reports, judicial proceedings and customs information – that was used in the story?
Public records are the heart and soul of what I do. That is the beauty of public records. There are always underlying documents to support your story. I checked the internet and culled out information. We made our own databases. I could access websites of those Chinese companies that were in English. I found the names of companies, the products they sold, those that were licensed or regulated. Although I am not a numbers person, I knew there was a way of quantifying the problem. We had to be specific.
Q5: What kind of impact that the stories have?
It brought the attention on to goods from
Q6: For a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, how does it feel when you crack into these stories?
It is very gratifying. There is a joy in being able to put together all pieces of a story. There is a sense of accomplishment. Here was a 5000 words non-American story in an American newspaper done by Americans. There is a difference between whipping up fast food and laying out French cuisine. It is worth the effort and is memorable.
It was my first day at NYU, when Mr Bogdanich came to speak to us about his experiences. His speech was very inspiring, reminding us about the true responsibility of a journalist - to keep important issues alive by asking simple questions even when they disappear from public memory, to dig deep into questions left unanswered in everyday reporting. Meeting him one on one for a class assignment was a humbling experience. I strongly feel that every journalist must possess these two qualities - empathy and humility - Mr Bogdanich has both in abundance. --------------------------