As she approaches her second year as an editor at the Center for Public Integrity, Mc Nelly Torres sees the need for bigger and faster changes in an investigative journalism field where numerous roadblocks remain for people of color.
The award-winning, South Florida-based investigative journalist is a former investigative producer for NBC6 in Miami. In 2010, Torres co-founded the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Before that, her consumer stories at the Sun-Sentinel won state, regional and national awards. She covered education for the San Antonio Express-news, where her work contributed to the conviction of a school building architect accused of bribery. In South Carolina, she garnered local and state awards for her investigative work on the state hog farm permitting process. She has also been a contributor to the Center for Investigative Journalism of Puerto Rico and to the Investigative Editors Corp.
Torres was the first Latina to be elected to the boards of directors of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Society of News Editors. She’s currently serving on the national board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
This year, Torres co-edited “Cheated at Work,” a major project that revealed that U.S employers illegally underpaying workers face few repercussions, along with investigations about school policing, anti-vaccine profiteers and how healthcare inequalities in the Deep South affect rural Black communities.
What first sparked your interest in journalism? Was there a key moment or story in your early career that made you realize investigative reporting is what you wanted to be doing with your life?
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, an island territory of the United States, which has always been ravaged by corruption, crime, social inequality and injustices. I was exposed to newspapers early in life, and that’s how I practiced my reading while sitting on my grandmother’s lap. At the time, Puerto Rico had four daily newspapers in Spanish and one in English, The San Juan Star.
But there was an incident that got me hooked: It was after the island experienced its first televised high-profile trial about police corruption and the cover-up of a botched sting operation. Undercover police executed two unarmed young men.
From day one, the government claimed these two men were terrorists on their way to bomb a tower at a top hill known as the Cerro Maravilla. As time went on, investigative journalists began to ask questions and compare the inconsistencies in the case. The island Senate opened an investigation that led to the first televised hearings uncovering gross neglect and murder on the officers part and a massive cover-up by government officials, police, the island department of justice and possibly the federal government. It was the ’80s and I was in high school. I would skip class to watch the Senate hearings on TV. The prosecutor was sharp, charismatic and a camera darling. Ten police officers were convicted of various crimes including perjury, obstruction of justice and other crimes. It was a dramatic time.
Years later, I was at my second newspaper job working as a criminal justice reporter in Oklahoma when I began to delve into the unsolved deaths of several women. My investigation led to FBI involvement and public admission that these deaths seemed to be related — possibly the work of a serial killer.
I spent months (on my own time) going through police records, reading autopsy reports, interviewing experts and the victims’ family and friends. As it happens in so many of these cases, these women suffered from mental illness and substance abuse issues, and most of them had been abused. What’s more, the sheriff, who had been in power for some time, had never solved a homicide case. That had also never been reported before. My investigation led to a three-part series I titled “Forgotten Souls” because law enforcement did nothing to investigate these cases, but these victims had family and loved ones who wanted to know what happened to them. The series was published as I was on my way to attend a data journalism bootcamp.
You’ve worked with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors for years to open the field of investigative journalism to more people of color. What kind of progress have you seen? What are the biggest remaining roadblocks? How can Public Integrity be a bigger part of that change?
Change takes time. But I have seen the number of journalists of color producing investigative and data-driven stories grow during the past decade. I remember the days when I was one of few journalists of color attending and speaking at the IRE and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting annual conferences. Today, there’s also more training geared toward journalists who have traditionally not been afforded the equal space to be exposed to data journalism and investigative tools.
I’m passionate about this area because evolving as a journalist never ends. This field is constantly changing. I also believe the birth of digital platforms have provided more opportunities for journalists to produce investigative journalism and tell stories in different ways. The big wall preventing change is the lack of opportunities and the fact that a few people tend to get these jobs. That remains an issue and the unwillingness from those in power to share the decision-making power with people who don’t look and think like them. But I’m hopeful this will someday become a thing of the past.
I believe Public Integrity could be in the forefront of pushing for change by continuing to provide opportunities for journalists of color and the tools we need to succeed. Our mission — covering inequality — is a step toward achieving that change because who is better equipped to dig deeper and write with authority and clarity than those who know how inequality has directly or indirectly affected them and the communities they belong to?
You’re celebrating your one-year anniversary with Public Integrity. What attracted you in the first place? What are the most important attributes of and priorities for a newsroom focused on investigating inequality?
Three factors attracted me to Public Integrity: the focus on producing data-driven investigations, the mission of covering inequality and the desire to build a diverse newsroom. This is an investigative newsroom and we have a talented staff, but investigating inequality requires a deeper understanding and the type of diversity that newsrooms need to shed light on these issues. Diversity produces better journalism. But we also need to equip our staff with the tools they need to be successful, and that includes data skills because that’s one of the most important skills needed to investigate inequality.
Another important attribute is humility to understand that America is a huge tapestry, and by that I mean, journalists need to sit back, at times, and be humble about the things we don’t know. That’s why we do what we do: We delve into issues because of our curiosity and willingness to find answers to our questions and explain the world around us.
What type of impact has Public Integrity’s journalism had during the pandemic, and how would you like to see its journalism continue to improve and grow?
Public Integrity’s work during the pandemic uncovered detailed reports the Trump administration coronavirus task force was producing for each state but kept secret. We also uncovered state policies that would keep people with disabilities from having equal access to ventilators. It also delved deeper to show why the Paycheck Protection Program failed to be distributed equally — especially to businesses that needed it the most. Our work also showed how anti-vaccine personalities are making a profit from spreading fear about the vaccines. These are a few of the many stories that made an impact during this tough period in our country.
Moving forward, I would like to see us dive into more complex projects to unveil systemic disparities and how decisions made by those in power have historically affected people in all sectors of our society. At the same time, I would like us to continue collaborations all across the board with small newsrooms because we can help each other to reach out to a bigger audience.
Public Integrity’s mission is to report on inequality all across American systems. For that reason, we keep our journalism advertisement- and paywall-free. Why should the person reading this support Public Integrity and keep our journalism available to all?
Investigative journalism takes time. Complicated stories can’t be done overnight. There’s a process and sometimes these stories take months and even years. Sometimes we must go to court and sue to obtain the documents and data we need. Watchdog reporting takes perseverance and patience when we are facing many questions without answers. We need to delve deep and find out what happened to shed light on a particular issue.
Information is power. We need information to make educated decisions, just like policymakers need accurate information to draft rules and laws. Making our journalism free and available to everybody has a value because we want everybody to be able to read our work without any advertising and no paywall. We need investigative journalism more than ever, but we need the public to support our work.
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