Herald-Tribune Reporter Calls In Favors To Carve Out Time for Sex Trafficking Project

the stolen ones

By Eric Barton
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

This past Sunday, newspaper readers woke up to a dose of reality on the front page of the Herald-Tribune. In an in-depth report titled “The Stolen Ones,” Sarasota’s daily newspaper uncovered just how bad child sex trafficking had become locally and, well, everywhere.

The author, J. David McSwane, covered city hall for the paper when he first learned of the problem. He called in favors from editors and fellow reporters. He managed countless hours of research by biting off chunks of time between daily assignments. In an email with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, McSwane explained how it all came together. Below is an excerpt.

FCIR: What was the impetus to the story?

McSwane: While covering the city, I was assigned to write about the grand opening of a local coffee shop. I met a woman there who said she founded a nonprofit whose mission would be to help local victims of sex trafficking. My reaction was typical: “Really? You think that’s happening here?” It sparked my interest and subsequent research. When I realized how under-reported this story was – how wrong my assumptions were – my disbelief turned to determination to pitch and write a story that examined why and how we don’t see this problem.

FCIR: The piece included lots of statistics and then a ton of interviews with victims of trafficking, two things that take different skill sets as a reporter. How’d you go about tackling those challenges?

McSwane: “The numbers are as dubious as they are revealing.” I spent a lot of time pondering this line. As an investigative reporter, my instinct was to quantify the scope of this problem and to find victims and villains to bring the scope and impacts to life. But there is almost no reliable statistic that illuminates the problem in any specific and meaningful way. I wanted it desperately. I considered other ways to approach this story, but nothing fit. Gathering our own data on such a hidden enterprise was also out of reach. So the feature reporter in me took over. My editor, Scott Carroll, and I agreed there was a deeper problem that required a multidiscipline approach. We decided to balance feature techniques, multimedia and hard-nosed reporting, which was a real challenge at times.

FCIR: This seems like the kind of investigation that could be duplicated by papers elsewhere. Any advice to a reporter who’s considering it?

McSwane: Yes, this story could be told anywhere and everywhere. My advice would be to reach out to advocates first. Ask them what they feel the media hasn’t done well. They are the gatekeepers protecting victims and survivors – too often, from us! – and they will guide you when you’re lost. Then I would recommend you shut up and listen. A lot of journalists have approached these stories in ways that have caused more harm than good. Still, the telling of these stories is an important goal of law enforcement, survivors and advocates. If you’re honest, and if you listen, the story will fall in your lap.

FCIR: The online version includes an impressive dedicated page, with videos and animation. How’d you accomplish this?

McSwane: I accomplished nothing. I pushed for this only in concept. From the beginning, I knew I had a good enough story and the multimedia experience to have all the story elements, but we really needed a new way to present the story and Dan Wagner’s amazing photography. I know only basic web coding but knew what could be done in theory. We just needed someone who could build it. This was a tall order considering we’ve been saddled with an antiquated web platform. We are also short staffed and have no projects editor. Nonetheless, Tony Elkins, our AME for design, found a way. He designed a mock up, defined the design rules and plucked and plied a guy from IT, Patrick Carroll, who really stepped up to the plate to build the site. Dan, Tony and Patrick deserve the credit for the presentation.

FCIR: In these days of limited newsroom resources, how’d you juggle daily obligations with all of this work?

McSwane: With immense shame and guilt. You hear people say “it was a team effort” all the time, as a sort of deflection. But I really mean it. People had to step up for me, sacrifices were made and weekly battles were won to bring this story home. I had become the environmental reporter as the story was really heating up, which was an impossible juggling act for me. Eventually, Zac Anderson stepped up to take over my environmental duties so I could land this story. I still can’t look Zac in the eyes. And again, we have no projects editor, so each time I was mired in a long passage of the story that just wasn’t working, I had to pull Scott Carroll from his duties as metro editor. This meant other reporters had to wait in line. Meanwhile, Dan was bartering with other photographers to take his assignments and so on. We worked nights and weekends to make up the difference. This story could only happen because the management of the Herald-Tribune believed in me. For that, I am thankful.

FCIR: What’s next for you?

McSwane: I have no clue. Whatever is next, I will be writing, reporting and pushing boundaries where I can get away with it.