How we got the story: Shelters in Haiti, Part II

After the earthquake in Haiti last year, plenty of organizations rushed in to help. One of those was former U.S. president Bill Clinton's foundation, which promised to build several "hurricane-proof" shelter/school duos. However, in a recent investigation published by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting two journalists discovered promises that look good on paper don't…

After the earthquake in Haiti last year, plenty of organizations rushed in to help. One of those was former U.S. president Bill Clinton's foundation, which promised to build several "hurricane-proof" shelter/school duos. However, in a recent investigation published by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting two journalists discovered promises that look good on paper don't always look great on the ground. This week, we talk to reporters Isabel Macdonald and Isabeau Doucet on how they got the story, what it was like reporting in Haiti, and sharing a byline.

After the earthquake in Haiti last year, plenty of organizations rushed in to help. One of those was former U.S. president Bill Clinton's foundation, which promised to build several "hurricane-proof" shelter/school duos. However, in a recent investigation published by the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting two journalists discovered promises that look good on paper don't always look great on the ground. This week, we talk to reporters Isabel Macdonald and Isabeau Doucet on how they got the story, what it was like reporting in Haiti, and sharing a byline.


J-Source: The fact that the shelters/schools were being built seems to be well-known, and indeed well-publicized, but when did you start to think an investigation was needed? What tipped you off?

Isabel Macdonald: We originally began discussing our idea for this shelters story as one part of a broader investigation (which we are still working on) into the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which is the commission co-chaired by Bill Clinton that was set up to coordinate and ensure transparency in Haiti's post-earthquake rebuilding. There has been very little oversight or monitoring of the projects approved by the commission, and several Haitian board members had complained about lack of transparency.

Isabeau had first reported on the shelters before they were even built, as part of an Al Jazeera team, and it was from her that I first heard about the project. Before we began the investigation, both of us had visited the schools where the trailers were installed, and had spoken to the school directors, some of whom were quite disappointed with the project. So we had some sense already that there might be a story.

And given that this was one of the few IHRC-approved projects to have been completed, it seemed a good place to begin our broader investigation. But when we first began, we really didn't realize the scale of the problems our investigation would unearth–such as the formaldhyde, and the headaches.

Isabeau Doucet: The shelter project was announced at the June 17th meeting of the IHRC, and there was a press conference in Leogane with Bill Clinton present in early august. As far as I know, there was no international press invited or present. I worked for Al Jazeera's Haiti bureau and around mid-September, as the hurricane season's active faze was becoming cause for concern, we decided to go find these shelters, which by then should have been installed. We found only a frustrated school principle and piles of rubble. In February an investigative reporter from Rolling Stone hired me as researcher and I told her about the shelters and she had me go see if they had been installed yet. I found out they had but were not very comfortable. They were very, very hot and stuffy, had no latrines, and the school directors didn't seem to be impressed. I spoke to someone from IOM who had heard they were already "melting" and was encouraging me to investigate. Isabel visited in March and I told her about them.

I wanted to do on the ground on-site visits to all IHRC projects since I knew this was one of the first announced and few completed, it seemed like a good place to start. Isabel and I decided to apply for funds. She started researching Clayton Homes and how embroiled they were in the FEMA formaldehyde scandal, and we took it from there.

No one other than Al Jazeera, I think, has covered these shelters.

J-Source: Tell me a little bit more about the process of the story. How much time did you spend reporting it? Writing it? Editing, etc.?

ID: I'd say we put in a good two weeks solid researching and applying for funds, a week preparing for the on the ground reporting, a week reporting on the ground, a week writing, a week editing. So something like 5 weeks.

IM: Basically it was my full time job for two months or so. Before we began the research trip, I spent a couple of weeks doing background research–going through court records, and databases such as Lexis Nexis, and speaking with experts such as engineers about international standards for hurricane shelter construction, as well as with various scientists with experience testing indoor air quality, and with lawyers involved with the FEMA formaldehyde litigation.

A key challenge in prepping for our research trip to Haiti was to find a structural engineer who would agree to conduct a structural assessment of the shelters, despite the fact that it involved a project backed by such a major international player as Bill Clinton. Luckily, I had met Kit Miyamoto, an internationally recognized structural engineer who has been quite outspoken about problems in Haiti's reconstruction, at a conference in Florida earlier this year, so I reached out to him. And it so happened that he was scheduled to be on the same flight as me when I flew to Port-au-Prince to begin the Haiti-based component of the investigation. He agreed to meet me in an airport lounge before the flight, where I showed him pictures of the project, and the Clinton Foundation's proposal. We basically just talked about the research all through the plane ride, and he eventually agreed to do an assessment for our investigation, at no cost.
I began the air testing in the trailers on a reporting trip to Leogane in the third week of July, and then Isabeau joined me for a return trip to Leogane, to wrap up the testing, and begin our on-the-ground reporting. We made a couple of further trips to Leogane, one of which included the structural assessment of the trailers by Kit Miyamoto.

We then wrapped up the reporting, and hammered out the article and edits over the course of the next week or so in Port-au-Prince.

J-Source: Tell me a little bit more about the air samples. How did you get them? Did you plan from the start to do your own testing?

ID: I'll let Isabel answer that one as she did the bulk of the legwork on getting them. I helped setting and collecting them and documenting the conditions around, but she dealt with the lab and scientist.

IM: As soon as we found out that Clayton Homes was a defendant in the FEMA formaldehyde litigation, we started thinking about how we could do this testing. At first, we tried to find someone in Haiti who might be able to do it for us, but our most well-connected Haiti contacts advised us that there was nobody who does this kind of testing in Haiti.

Given our limited research budget, we realized that we were going to have to do the testing ourselves. We got a lot of really helpful advice on this from Sheila Kaplan, a journalist who'd reported on the FEMA trailer formaldehyde controversy after Hurricane Katrina. As well as from the Sierra Club, which had conducted their own testing of the FEMA trailers. And I spent a lot of time before we went to Haiti, and while we were there too, talking to various university industrial hygienic labs, as well as to scientists who'd been involved in testing the FEMA trailers, about research protocols for the testing.

J-Source: You share by-lines for this story. How was it working with another reporter? How did you split the reporting? Writing? Tell me more.

IM: It was challenging at times to work together, especially as it really entails so much time to do this kind of research. Haiti is a relatively expensive country, especially when it comes to accommodations, and as we were trying to do the research as cost-efficiently as possible, we shared a room–and even a bed!–the whole duration of our reporting trip. So it was pretty intense at times. But I think ultimately the collaboration made for a better story than what either of us would have been able to do alone, as we brought different and complimentary skills and experiences. I have more experience with investigative journalism, whereas Isabeau has spent more time in Haiti than me, especially recently, and she speaks better Creole, and has a great current network of contacts in the country.

ID: We'd been talking about writing something together for some time and generally share some strange parallels and similarities. I had the on-the-ground experience and contacts, and had the keep eye of online databases and research, and while sharing a similar outlook, our respective strengths and weaknesses complimented eachother.

She took the lead on the formaldehyde and structural engineering problems while I looked at the IHRC process, the cholera, the community consultation, the IOM and OCHA, mayor.

There were difficulties sharing by-line and writing as we both had different interests and ideas on what the story really was. Though the hook for a US audience was the formaldehyde, living and working in Haiti for a year and seeing people die regularly of 19th century diseases and political instability, I was more interested in what this case-study says about trends on Haiti's faltering reconstruction comission, and the general low to no regard for standards in development projects.

We also had to do quite a bit of juggling to make our schedules compatible and find an appropriate news hook. Things were set back a bit when Al Jazeera sent a crew and as I'm their usual field producer, they wanted to hire me and I couldn't say no.

On the ground reporting, I took care of the filming and we both conducted the interviews.

J-Source: There is one quote from Maddalena that really strikes me: "You should get those kids outta there." But you, as reporters, can't, really. What was it like, emotionally, to report this story, and to be in Haiti?

ID: spending any amount of time in the trailers is uncomfortable and especially the formaldehyde one. I had a migraine for a day and a half after interviewing the kids in there.

There is a sense that the shelters are very unhealthy environment and I felt particularly indignant at the thought that kids would have to write exams in there. I can't concentrate in a library that doesn't have proper air ventilation, so thinking these kids would have to perform academically in this toxic stuffy hot box, clearly be a set back for students' concentration, just seems like the cruellest irony given that Haiti needs education more than anything.

On the other hand, Haiti is such an insalubrious environment, that the country itself is a human rights violation, so on the scale of things, this isn't a massive scandal, and no one is dying from it.

J-Source: I've heard that Clinton responded fairly swiftly to this story. What did he say? What has the reaction been like? And what do you make of it?

IM: Clinton himself, who originally declined to comment for our article, has still not commented, so far as I know. However, a spokesperson from his foundation was quoted in an Associated Press article saying they are looking into the problems we documented in our investigation, and that they will fix any "structural problems." But we are waiting to see what they actually do.

ID: I think Clinton's people don't have a good excuse and don't have experts to counter our claims, so they did what they thought would make the story go away quickly. It's unfortunate that their top priority seems to have been mitigating the fallout of Clinton's public persona rather than just hiring experts to begin with and getting the project done right on the ground in the first place. It remains to be seen when and if  their experts will actually assess and fix anything.

J-Source: What should a good investigative piece do?
IM: In contrast to much daily reporting, which too often merely reports on official statements by powerful sources, investigative journalism, at its best, interrogates official truths–through drawing on contrary evidence unearthed through document research, on-the-ground-reporting, and through the accounts of those marginalized in official narratives.

While investigative reporting is often associated with exposes about scandals involving individual politicians, I think some of the most important work in this genre–and this is a point that Cecil Rosner makes in his book Behind the Headlines–is to cast light on systems and power structures.

J-Source: What do you think makes a good investigative piece?
IM: At the most basic level, I think resources and time–which are unfortunately in extremely short supply for journalists working in most newsrooms today–are absolutely crucial for good investigative work.

Which is why I think the recent emergence of the CCIR–Canada's first non-profit organization devoted to funding investigative journalism, which provided support for our investigation–is an extremely promising sign for the future of this essential form of journalism in this country.

Isabel Macdonald is a Montreal-based journalist and media scholar whose investigative reporting for The Nation magazine and other outlets has been featured on ABC's Good Morning America, Radio-Canada's Telejournal and Democracy Now!. In 2010, she broke the story that Lou Dobbs, the TV host well known for his rhetoric against "illegal immigrants," had relied for years on undocumented immigrants for the upkeep of his estate. Her journalism has also been published by the Toronto Star, the Guardian, and NYC's Spanish language daily, El Diario, amongst other outlets. The former communications director of the NYC-based media watch group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting), she also writes about issues of media and democracy for Extra!, FAIR's magazine of media criticism, and has published in scholarly journals such as Journalism Studies, Race & Class and the Canadian Journal of Communication. She has an MA in Communication & Culture from York University, where she completed a thesis examining Canadian press coverage of the 2004 coup d'etat in Haiti. She is currently completing a PhD at Concordia University, examining questions around the future of investigative journalism.

Isabeau Doucet is a visual artist and Port-au-Prince-based freelance producer for Al Jazeera English and reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, The Toronto Star, The Nation, Radio France Internationale, and Haiti Liberte.