Monday, March 24, 2008

Dangerous Chinese Factories: The Woman Behind the Story

If Loretta Tofani were a better businesswoman, we might never have learned just how incredibly unsafe working conditions are in the many Chinese factories that export furniture and other goods to the United States.

Tofani talked about her extraordinary odyssey at the Goldsmith investigative reporting seminar at Harvard's Kennedy School on Wednesday, March 19, 2008. The newspaper series she wrote--"American Imports, Chinese Deaths"--was a finalist for the Goldsmith Awards, whose recipients often go on to receive Pulitzer Prizes. The articles ran in the fall of 2007 in the Salt Lake Tribune.

When Tofani and her husband, a family physician, moved to Utah a few years ago, she gave up journalism to start a furniture importing business. (Tofani had been a longtime investigative reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.) In the course of setting up shop, she visited a lot of Chinese factories to see who she might tap as suppliers.

Tofani couldn't help noticing that the workers who sprayed oil-based paint on the assembled furniture lacked even the most basic protection to guard against breathing in the fumes--fumes that she suspected were full of lead.

And this wasn't happening in just a few odd factories. As a businesswoman, Tofani had access to many more places than she would have had as a journalist. In factory after factory, she kept noticing workers without protective masks and heard gruesome stories about workers who had lost fingers, hands and arms to dangerous machinery.

Eventually Tofani closed her business and devoted the next couple of years of her life to documenting the extent of the problem in China. And then, she started linking individual factories with poor safety records to the specific American businesses that imported their products.

Listening to Tofani tell her story, I realized how hard freelance investigative reporting is. She worked alone, with a few grants to cover some travel expenses. After her piece ran, she was offered a job with the Salt Lake Tribune but turned it down. She said the newspaper wanted her to turn around her investigative pieces in five weeks and she thought that wasn't enough time.

Paul Steiger, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, was also at the Goldman seminar. He publically offered Tofani a job at ProPublica, his new non-profit investigative news venture--but only if she'd move to New York City. (Note to self: ProPublica's New York-centric newsroom model would make a good subject for another post.)

Made me wonder just who's going to pay for investigative pieces like Tofani's? And what's the cost if we don't hear those stories? If for-profits and non-profits don't do it, are crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding up to the job?

And what about all those other business people who visit Chinese factories? Don't they notice how bad conditions are?

Read Tofani's own account: "How I got the story."

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