Brian Grow on Reuters "The Body Trade" investigative series
In October, Reuters published a five-part investigation revealing the inner workings of a little-known and largely unregulated U.S. market: the trade in donated human body parts used for research and education. Each year, thousands of Americans donate their bodies in the belief that they are contributing to science. In fact, the story by investigative reporters Brian Grow and John Shiffman found that they are also contributing to commerce, their bodies dissected and sold for profit by a small group of entrepreneurs – the private body broker industry. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Brian offers a behind-the-scenes look at the investigation.
Q. How did you and John get started on this story?
A. As with many enterprise stories, we got curious. Last year, we saw reports about a body broker who had been charged with fraud. That case caused us to ask a more fundamental question: What is this market for human body parts? How is it legal? We decided to examine the body broker industry in stories that explain how the characters, the practices, and the regulation of the trade in human remains really work. Or don’t work at all.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing was involved?
A. We used the gamut of reporting and sourcing methods. We developed contacts in the body broker industry. We obtained internal documents and filed public records requests, amassing thousands of pages of original, previously unreported material; we tracked obituaries to identify donors and DNA testing to confirm identities; we used Reuters multimedia resources, often taking a photographer or videographer on our local reporting trips. And in the most original – and most technically challenging – aspect of the reporting, we purchased human body parts ourselves.
Q. What was the hardest part about the reporting?
A. The Body Trade was the most exhausting and emotional project in my journalism career. We spent a lot of time, in person and over the phone, with donor families – moms, dads, sons and daughters – who often did not know what really happened to their loved ones after donation. In a number of cases, we were the ones who informed them of what really happened, which led to many heart-breaking interviews.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell our global readers and clients?
A. We are in the business of telling our readers what other people don’t want them to know, of shining light in dark places. Nothing is more personal than giving away your body – or your relative’s body. This series was important to our global readers and clients because it reveals the true inner workings of The Body Trade, a little-understood, and sometimes very dark, industry.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. Our editors Blake Morrison and Mike Williams give us the freedom to pursue our intellectual curiosity, the time to dig deep, and they set the bar high. Those are key conditions for great journalism.
Q. What is your job/beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I am an enterprise correspondent. The job is extremely fulfilling because of the expectation to seek out new information and consistently surprise our readers.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. Many of our projects have generated fundamental change in companies, markets, and in the regulatory environment. That is extremely rewarding – and what we are supposed to do as watchdogs. But even when we reveal things that others don’t want us to know, change does not always happen. That can be frustrating.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I became a journalist after a decade working for major corporations. I followed my passion – and continue to find it deeply rewarding.
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