The most interesting aspect of Renee Ferguson’s award-winning story, ‘Strip-searched at O’Hare’ in 1997 is about the background elements that lead to months of investigation. One phone call from an innocent social worker—a woman of color who was profiled as a drug carrier and her body cavities were searched, led to a change in policies of U.S. Customs.
Ferguson recounts how Gladys Lindsey, assignments editor at NBC 5 yelled across the room to drop everything and take this phone call which the newsroom received. She patiently listened to what the innocent woman expressed about being strip-searched at O’Hare after returning from a vacation in London. Ferguson said, “I had never heard of this happen and wasn’t sure how this could be true.”
It is important to listen to the other side of the story; hence Ferguson called U.S. Customs and asked whether this had happened. They didn’t deny this and said, “Well you know there are people who come in here with drugs, mules, women and we do the searches.”
The big debate in the NBC 5 newsroom was whether to look for a bigger pattern or just broadcast one woman’s story. Ferguson supported the idea of putting one story on air and see how the audience reacts. At that instant, the newsroom’s phone lines were flooded with calls from innocent women who shared the same experience of being strip-searched.
She said, “It wasn’t just women; children, people in wheelchair, were also taken to hospitals and subjected to vaginal exams.”
Ferguson describes this story as a clear form of gender profiling of black women. When the story was broadcasted, it was found that this wasn’t just happening at O’Hare, it was all happening across the country.
As a result of this break-through story, President Clinton fired the Director of U.S. Customs.
She said, “these strip-searches violated everything our country stands for.”
The question that arises is; why did the U.S. Customs strip-search only black women?
Ferguson found that Customs had first caught a black woman who came in from Jamaica and had a lot of drugs on her. And the officers who caught her; received awards, commendations, promotions.
That created an environment of motivation for officers who looked at all black women as drug carriers. Regardless of the fact that these women are in professionally respected fields, she said, “doctors, lawyers, prominent black women were searched and are undergoing psychiatry because of how they were targeted.”
Ferguson’s broadcasted investigation changed the regulations of how searches would be conducted and on whom and how the country is going to keep everyone safe with their rights.
By Qudsiya Siddiqui
A good lead to unfolding injustice gives you an adrenaline rush to accurately report the story that is the basis of investigative journalism. It’s the field where a journalistic intervention is important to report the truth to citizens for the betterment of the country.
Renee Ferguson, an award-winning investigative reporter for NBC 5 news team shares tips on pursuing a career in investigative journalism.
Investigative reporters need to have this curiosity and skepticism in every story they write.
“I have always been a detective at heart, always wanted to know why, and then why and what really happened. I rarely take anybody’s word for anything; I need confirmation and then confirmation of the confirmation.” FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT
Growing up in an era of segregation in Oklahoma, she was taught to always ‘fight for what she wanted’. But not just fight for your rights, fight for other people and learned a good sense of what is right and wrong. As well as gained a good sense of social justice.
“If you see a problem, you want to fix it and get the law changed.”
She interprets an example of how the status quo likes to maintain itself and going against the majority of the power is very difficult in the country.
Ferguson is retired now but is still working on the case of Tyrone Hood, who was wrongly convicted for a murder and robbery in 1993 and still waits for freedom even though there is credible evidence against Marshall Morgan Sr. who really committed this crime. She said, “It is the last thing I have to do.”
Take challenges head-on, leave the comfort zone and don’t be afraid to make mistakes as it is all a part of the learning curve.
While studying in Indiana University, Ferguson was adamant to work at a real newspaper. She needed the money and the experience of a newsroom. In the light of many issues happening in 1970s, with special regard to the Watergate scandal, she decided on interning at the Washington Post as it was ‘the best newspaper’ at that time.
She recounts the day as if it had just happened yesterday, “The Post did not even recruit at my college, and they just recruited at Ivy Leagues. I made a direct call and found out the interviews were happening in Chicago at Newsweek magazine headquarters.”
“And so, I hitchhiked from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago.” Without an appointment and a determination to hoard her way in, she got an interview with Philip Geyelin, the editorial page editor at The Post.
She describes him as a big ‘Kahuna’, “I didn’t know that. I just knew him as the guy who is interviewing people.”
As fearless as Ferguson can be as a college student, she explained to him how she really wanted to work for The Post and displayed her writing samples which they conversed about.
At the end of the interview, his brow furrowed with worry, he questioned, “How will you get back to school?” and she replied, “I’m going to hitch-hike.”
He pulls out $100 bills from his pocket, with a warning to never hitch-hike and call him when she reaches college.
Ferguson did as she was told and few weeks later, she scored the internship and fondly refers to Mr. Geyelin as an inspiring and wonderful man who gave her this opportunity.
FYI – Never hitch-hike.
“When you are on TV, you are really connecting with people, you connect with them from the heart.”
She expressed the times when the stories she reported on made her upset and the people could see her humanity because she let them, through the power of a visual medium.
Ferguson supports the idea of having all kinds of people in the newsroom who are in different fields of journalism, for a broader perspective on stories.
She illustrates an example of covering a fire from an investigative reporter’s point of view, Example: how many fires have there been in this community, what were the results of others?
Is there a problem with the electrical wiring throughout the community?
Is there arson everywhere?
Is this a bunch of business that are in trouble, are their insurance companies in common?
Lastly her advice to upcoming journalists would be to take a ‘vow of poverty.’
“If you want to write and you want to do this from your heart, then I think you need to understand that you will not in most cases become wealthy.”