McGraw-Backed Palm Oil Investigation Series Racks Up More Honors

  • By Newmark J-School Staff
AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

Fruits of Labor,  a two-year investigation by McGraw Fellows Margie Mason and Robin McDowell on human rights and labor abuses in the palm oil industry for the Associated Press, has received two new awards – the latest in a series of honors bestowed on the exhaustively reported series.

On April 20, Mason and McDowell won the Nieman Foundation’s Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. The same day, the Sidney Hillman Foundation bestowed on the pair top honors in the newspaper category in its annual awards recognizing outstanding investigative journalism.

In honoring their work, the Nieman judges noted both the difficulty and the thoroughness of their reporting on Fruits of Labor:

“Mason and McDowell provide an in-depth look at the dangerous conditions laborers face on large palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia. The reporters interviewed more than 130 current and former workers from eight countries at two dozen companies. They revealed an industry in which poor and vulnerable harvesters are regularly exposed to toxic agrochemicals and face serious hazards ranging from trafficking and rape to child labor and slavery…

The reporters took special precautions to gain access to the plantations, meet with sources in secret, and shield those who agreed to share their stories from retaliation. The journalists themselves were filmed, photographed and followed by plainclothes police as they did their work.”

Those awards come on top of three earlier prizes for Mason and McDowell, who received a McGraw Fellowship from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism in 2018 to support their work on the series.

The series was given the top prize for large Print/Online organizations in the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual awards, beating out stiff competition that included The New York Times’ exposé on President Trump’s taxes.

It also won the  Overseas Press Club’s Joe and Laurie Dine Award, which honors the best international reporting in any medium dealing with human rights, as well as the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting from USC Annenberg,

In the various awards, the judges also cited the impact of Mason and McDowell’s stories.

Following the series’ publication, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned imports from two of the world’s biggest palm oil producers — Malaysian-owned FGV Holdings and Sime Darby Plantation — and announced findings from their own investigation that echoed those in the stories. Two dozen Democratic lawmakers have urged the U.S. government to clamp down harder on palm oil imports. And Girl Scouts around the U.S. decided to stop selling cookies after the story revealed that child labor had been used in the palm oil supplied to their bakeries.