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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Shadid Curriculum: Seafood from Slaves

Associated Press reporters and 2016 Shadid Award winner Margie Mason (top left), Robin McDowell (top right), Martha Mendoza (lower left) and Esther Htusan (lower right).

While investigating an Asian “slave island” that provides fish for the American market, AP reporters realized that any slave who talked with them faced possible execution. The reporters and their editors decided to rescue their sources from the island before publishing the explosive story.

Journalists’ Obligation to Others

While investigating the Indonesian island village of Benjina, which would later be discovered to be the central hub of a massive slave labor fishing organization, Associated Press reporters Martha Mendoza, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Esther Htusan quickly realized that fishermen who talked with them faced possible execution. This revelation, combined with extensive evidence of abuse and the strong implication of coerced labor, led to an important decision: the reporters and their editors decided to rescue their sources from the island before publishing their story.

Their story incited an international uproar. In response to the AP investigation and subsequent pressure from the U.S. State Department, Indonesian officials intervened, leading to the freedom of more than 2,000 slaves. Boycotts of implicated American companies ensued and import laws were reformed.


Q1: The AP defied journalistic convention by intervening to such a large extent. When is it justifiable for journalists to diverge from standard norms of their professional duties?

Q2: Do journalists have a special responsibility for the welfare of the public?

Q3: What role does personal safety play in the journalist’s work? Is the safety of the journalist more important than the safety of sources?

Q4: Two years after the investigation, AP published a follow-up story on a few of the freed slaves. At what point does the journalist’s obligation to sources end, if at all?