by Myra Saturen
March 28, 2013
Both stories started with a phone call.
A mother contacted Morning Call reporter Spencer Soper. Her son had been offered a job at the Amazon warehouse in Breinigsville, quitting his prior position to accept it. Reporting to work on the very first day, the young man learned that the job he had been promised did not exist.
Paul Muschick received a call from a veteran struggling for years to obtain benefits due him because of illnesses caused by work he did in the service.
Relentlessly pursuing these tips, Morning Call reporters Paul Muschick and Spencer Soper dug below the surface to correct wrongs and improve lives. They discussed their own work and the field of investigative journalism at a talk, "Watchdogs: Journalism with Teeth," on March 28, at Northampton Community College (NCC). Muschick is a consumer advocate. He writes the "Watchdog" column, which "holds businesses, institutions and governments accountable by disclosing poor service, mismanagement and improper use of public dollars." Soper is a business reporter who writes the Call's "On the Cheap" column.
Soper recalled that in the beginning, the Morning Call reported the Amazon story as that of a new business coming to town and providing jobs in a weak economy. But the mother's call set questions running through the reporter's mind. What was going on here? He called the company and received no feedback. "When you are getting radio silence, a pretty good red flag goes up," Soper said. He then visited a recruitment drive at Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC). Sitting on a bench, he heard two men talking: they had a problem, the men said to each other; the number of jobs publicized exceeded the number of jobs actually available. Another red flag. When he tried to talk to the men, they referred him to the company's corporate office. The Amazon spokespeople attributed the discrepancy to a "technical glitch."
But this "explanation" proved to be the tip of the iceberg. Once the LCCC story came out, calls started flooding in. "You don't know the half of it," callers said. Soper learned that employees at the Breinigsville warehouse were working in 110-plus degree swelter, at a brutal mandatory pace unadjusted for weather conditions. More disturbing still, ambulances stood by to carry workers, expected to collapse, to hospitals. "If you have an ambulance parked there to cart exhausted workers off and put others in their place, that's wrong," Soper said. "Because the economy is bad, you cannot exploit the situation and treat people like disposable parts." He contacted the corporate offices and received no response. An even larger red flag flew.
Soper's reporting in the Morning Call series on conditions at the Amazon warehouse sparked widespread concern and spread across the country. Amazon finally installed 50 million dollars' worth of air conditioners in their warehouses nationwide. Along with his children, Soper watched helicopters delivering the units to the Breinigsville warehouse, knowing the move was a result of his reporting. As he watched, he thought, "Employees will have an easier time now because they talked to me and I reported it."
As in Soper's work, Muschick's doggedness in following up on the ignored veteran's case led to the man obtaining his benefits from the Veteran's Administration. "An investigative reporter lets people know they are not going away," Muschick said. "Good stories start with one call, and the reporter has to have an open mind and has to think of the big picture. Then, you have to become a contact for the community, to effect change."
The reporters acknowledged that sources take a leap of faith and that the reporter has to justify that trust by writing accurate stories. Being a source comes with danger--possible repercussions such as job loss.
Journalists are aware of their influence. "Our power is to illuminate, to shine a spotlight," Soper said. "Consumers respond with their wallets," he said of the Amazon case, "The market reacts because consumers react. It therefore becomes a good business practice to treat employees well."
Soper and Muschick spoke about their own careers, beginning at small town newspapers and working their way up, usually by moving to other papers offering greater opportunities. They discussed the shrinkage of newspaper staffs and the elevation of entertainment versus hard news, but they nonetheless encouraged students to pursue the field. "Investigative journalism is still important," Soper said. "If you believe in journalism, I encourage you to go into it. There will always be a need for independent, detached professionals to collect and report on information." While some media outlets have dropped investigative journalism in favor of fluff, people still want substantive reporting, both journalists said.
Some of the advice Soper and Muschick gave students included:
•Journalism must be something you invest yourself in. You must be willing to work nights, weekends. You must have a thick skin when people criticize you. It is a demanding, difficult profession.
• Fledgling journalists must be willing to start at the bottom, often working second, part-time jobs to make ends meet.
• Journalists must be willing to move to wherever the career takes them.
•When considering jobs, look at the cost of living in various places.
•Develop technical and digital skills. When applying for a job, highlight these.
•Journalists need to be both specialized and versatile. Although many news outlets have photographers, for instance, a reporter should be prepared to take on-the-spot photos and videos of breaking stories.
•Do not become discouraged by those who tell you there is no room in the field. Readers will always need news. Moreover, technical innovations like the World Wide Web, give stories infinite shelf life. They remain. They can never be crumpled and thrown away.
•Do what you love. Stick with it if that is your passion.
While exacting, journalism is a highly important, rewarding field, the journalists said. "It made me feel like a good citizen when those air conditioners got installed at the warehouse," Soper remembered. "In journalism you are making a difference. It is a noble profession."
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