Murrow Mondays is a series of behind-the-scenes looks at Murrow Award winning journalism.
Sunday, January 7, 2018, was a tragic day in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 23-year-old Shacarra Lashae Hogue, during her fourth day working at a plastics factory, died on the job. The tragedy was widely reported in the first days, but details were sparse and the incident was “largely forgotten,” says News Director Jonathan Shelley.
His WPTA news team did not forget about the workplace death. The “Digging Deeper” team dug into a state investigation of the incident, the plastics company where it occurred and the troubling aftermath.
This April, Indiana’s governor signed new legislation significantly increasing penalties for “willful misconduct by an employer resulting in death.”
Just 15 months after Hogue’s death, and four months after WPTA’s first investigative report, the new law increased accountability for workplace safety. The story is a Murrow Award-winning example of investigative reporting catalyzing positive change.
Here’s what Shelley says news teams should do to dig deeper:
“Don't forget to circle back on incidents that may be under review for weeks or months.”
Immediately following the tragedy, the victim’s family did not want to talk, and little was known about the reported accident except that an investigation would begin. The WPTA team tracked the state investigation and noted when the case closed several months later, taking the opportunity to reach back out to the family. At that point, the story was bigger than one family's tragedy – it was a pattern of failed accountability – and the family was ready to talk.
“Look at the bigger picture. Is something an isolated incident or is there a larger trend or practice that is related to it?”
Shelley says his team looked at the results of the investigation into the workplace death and was first “struck by what we found to be egregious misconduct by the company,” which had made unsafe modifications to the compressor machine which killed Hogue. They were even more shocked by what seemed a “remarkably light penalty” imposed on the company. “It turned out, IOSHA (the agency that handled such matters) had a long history of bargaining down fines – and even the initial penalties that were imposed were based on guidelines and caps set in the 1980s.”
Records requests are not the only, or even always the best, source of data.
After noticing the surprisingly small fine for the unsafe equipment leading to Hogue’s death, the WPTA team looked into state and federal data. Many state agency records were available online, as were Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, enabling the team to start finding patterns. Online data lacked some important details, so reporter Alexis Shear filed public records requests to get more data so the team could compare Indiana to other states.
More valuable information that wouldn't be available through records requests came from the family’s attorney, which had pictures of the machine, and the manufacturer, which eventually provided schematics allowing WPTA to show exactly how the plastics factory had modified the machine. An in-house graphic artist created an animation showing how the improper use of the machine was so dangerous.
“Step back and get an outside take on a complicated report.”
The story of the workplace death, investigation and lax state follow up had many moving pieces. Shelley screened the initial report to others outside the team for feedback. They said it was confusing and hard to follow, so the team reorganized it and aired a much more accessible version. That initial report caught the attention of state lawmakers, the first step to new legislation for safer workplaces.
More from the "Dying on the Job" reporting