For their groundbreaking findings in palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, Associated Press reporters Margie Mason and Robin McDowell won the 2021 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, presented Feb. 23 in a virtual program convened by USC Annenberg.
Brimming with fresh insight and incisive reporting, “Fruits of Labor” examined the working conditions of mistreated and vulnerable workers in the palm oil industry, as well as their direct connection to goods sold in American supermarkets. The project brought endemic labor issues to the fore, highlighting the inhumanity of much of the palm oil operation in Southeast Asia.
“Now, more than ever, we need intellectually rigorous, highly ethical, technically skilled journalists like Margie and Robin and the many recipients before them who hold those in power accountable and tell stories that matter,” said Gordon Stables, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism.
Mason and McDowell are no strangers to trailblazing reporting — they were part of the Associated Press team who earned the same award in 2016 for penning a series of stories, “Seafood from Slaves,” about labor inequities within the Thai fishing industry and its repercussions.
The prestigious annual award has been presented by the USC Annenberg School of Journalism for more than three decades. The honor includes a $50,000 prize, and is intended to bring important investigative stories to the public eye.
“Investigative journalism is really about finding things that are wrong, and holding people accountable,” said Mason. “It is hard, the most challenging type of work that you can do, but it’s also some of the most important.”
For more than two years, Mason and McDowell reported on the palm oil industry, finding stories of workplace rape and abuse and documenting the pervasiveness of unpaid work. Toxic chemical exposure and unending hours with inadequate equipment are not only imposed upon adult-laborers but children, too. The palm oil harvested by these workers is found in products from companies such as Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, and Girl Scouts.
“This is the ultimate supply chain story because palm oil goes to so many products,” said McDowell. “This was the attraction for us, it just covered so many companies and raised awareness in so many directions. The story impacts everything.”
The revelations made throughout the series had immediate impact — the U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it was blocking imports from two Malaysian-owned palm oil producers, FGV Holdings and Sime Darby Plantation. The Girl Scouts called for manufacturers to look into the use of palm oil produced by child labor within their own supply chains.
“It’s a $65-billion industry, so the story is extremely sensitive,” said Mason. “Malaysia is really built on palm oil, the sources who spoke out about this were incredibly brave. We talked to about 250 people in reporting this story.”
When asked what advice they would give younger journalists, the two-time Selden Ring Award winners spoke eagerly.
“Think big,” said McDowell. “The worst thing that can happen is you only achieve part of it, and that’ll still be a lot. Investigative journalism is a way to really force change.”
Mason advised journalists to be strategic. “I always give this advice, but don’t tell your editor everything you’re doing,” said Mason. “Do the story, do the reporting, and once you’ve found the irresistible part of the story, then tell your editor.”
California philanthropist Selden Ring first established the Selden Ring award at USC Annenberg in 1989, with the goal of spotlighting hard-hitting investigative journalists and their impact.
This year’s judging panel included: Lead judge Shani Hilton, deputy managing editor, Los Angeles Times; Geeta Anand, dean, UC Berkeley School of Journalism; James “Jim” Dau, education editor, The New York Times; Michelle Garcia, editorial manager, NBC BLK at NBC News; Jessica Garrison, West Coast investigation editor, BuzzFeed; Ron Nixon, international investigations editor, The Associated Press; and Topher Sanders, investigative reporter, ProPublica