2015 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom winner

The Dark Side of the Strawberry


About the Project

The Dark Side of the Strawberry is a new way of imagining the life cycle of an investigative reporting project, from story conception to production, from distribution to impact.

This investigation combined shoe-leather reporting with cutting-edge data and design, social science surveys, lively web stories and community engagement through bilingual text messaging. It went analog with a live stage play, performed in English and Spanish, in the communities most affected by our findings. Now, we’ve kicked into the problem-solving stage, collaborating with Stanford University’s to create innovative solutions to the problems we uncovered.

The reporters didn’t start with a tip or a story idea. They began with a simple question: What’s the state of modern pesticide regulation? They didn’t know where it would take them, but they immersed themselves in the world of agriculture and went looking for the most interesting, relevant and important story they could find.

Quickly, they latched on to a promising storyline: The ubiquitous, California-grown strawberry relies on heavy amounts of some of the most dangerous pesticides in use. Strawberry farmers use them close to where people live, work and go to school on the California coast. Residents in the heart of strawberry country, a city called Oxnard, didn’t seem to know much about the health risks around them.

Once we’d decided on this specific story, we wanted to understand two things about people in the community: What was their baseline knowledge about pesticide risk, and where did they get their information?

Our on-staff social scientist designed a community survey. Working with graduate students from the University of Southern California, we went door to door to ask these questions. We are now conducting a follow-up survey six months after the project ran to measure its impact on community understanding of the issue.

Meanwhile, the reporting team dug in. The reporters relied on reams of public documents, whistleblowing scientists, sophisticated data analysis and old-fashioned door knocking to bring the story to life.

The reporters ultimately found that chemical companies and farmers have exploited loopholes in state regulations and global treaties to pump up the amount of toxins they can use, increasing cancer risk in more than 100 California communities and further depleting the ozone layer in the process.

For the second stage, we set about creating a package that was user-friendly and easily shareable.

The long-form text story is told as one narrative, but it’s also built as five standalone chapters, each with its own anchor link. That allowed us to slowly roll out the story over one week. It also gave users multiple points of entry and allowed them to share surprising findings with a pinpointed link, not simply the top of a 7,500-word story.

We created a stop-motion animation, narrated by Roman Mars of the popular podcast “99% Invisible,” that simply and quickly explained the complex story.

The web app for the first time lets Californians know what’s actually going on with pesticide use around their homes, schools and businesses. It gives detailed location-based information about every pesticide application in the state over a decade and the associated health risks. This provided parents and teachers access to information they wished they had but didn’t think even existed. We hope to continue to update it each year as the state releases more data.

But our community surveys also showed that local residents often didn’t turn to the internet for news. So we got a list of all of Oxnard’s addresses and identified the 5,000 homes most at risk. We designed a postcard with simple instructions in English and Spanish and sent it to those 5,000 addresses. All residents had to do was text their address to a number we created, and they would get a report texted back about pesticide use in their neighborhood. (None of this user data will be used for marketing, by the way.)

We’d invested a lot of time and resources to the story. But the audience was just beginning to understand it. In many ways, we were just getting started.

So we kicked into a third stage built around solutions and in-person engagement.

In partnership with San Francisco’s Tides Theatre, we commissioned leading playwright Octavio Solis to create a play inspired by the reporting. It was performed in front of live audiences – followed by conversations with the journalists, playwright and actors – for a month in San Francisco. We then took the show on the road, traveling to strawberry country to deliver the play in English and Spanish for the local community.

Reporters listened to common reactions from readers on social media and created solutions posts on their questions and concerns. They picked up on a theme: Readers felt like they’d had their favorite fruit ruined. Or they just felt helpless.

We wanted to confront that. Now, to close the loop in this story’s life cycle, we’re partnering with Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design – also known as the – to see what happens when you combine investigative reporting with design thinking. Graduate students there are picking up where our reporters left off to look for new, creative solutions to problems our project highlighted. We hope to inspire our readers to see the positive change that can come about because of good journalism. The hopes to use it as a model for how its design thinkers can address civic needs.

Regardless of how that experiment pans out, we’ve already seen positive change.

After our inquires, the state closed a loophole that was putting communities at increased cancer risk. Oxnard and surrounding communities have demanded, and received, stringent air monitoring. For the first time, the state is creating regulations to limit pesticide use around schools and to force growers to notify nearby residents of pesticide applications.

And, most importantly, the people in strawberry country know what’s going on in their backyards.