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In conversation: Times Pulitzer winner Kathleen McGrory

Bill DeYoung

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Paul Tash, Chairman and CEO of the Times Publishing Company, left, Tampa Bay Times Executive Editor Mark Katches, reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi, and former Deputy Editor of Investigations Adam Playford watch as McGrory and Bedi are announced as the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting on Friday, June 11, 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When the 2021 Pulitzer Prize winners for journalism were announced June 11, the top brass from the Tampa Bay Times were assembled at the St. Petersburg home of deputy investigations editor Kathleen “Kat” McGrory. Her series “Targeted,” written in collaboration with former Times reporter Neil Bedi, was nominated in the Best Local Reporting category.

McGrory, whose husband Mike Van Sickler is the paper’s senior political editor, was home because she had given birth to the couple’s first child, a boy, just days before.

“Targeted” took the award, making it the 13th legacy Pulitzer for the former St. Petersburg Times, and its third for Local Reporting. There were hugs and handshakes all around.

An in-depth probe of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, “Targeted” brought to light the department’s practice of systematic harassment and “monitoring” of citizens and school children.

McGrory and Bedi – who now works as a reporter for ProPublica – were Pulitzer finalists for their 2018 series “Heartbroken,” about medical improprieties and preventable infant deaths in the heart unit at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

 

How much is the process of investigative reporting like what we see in movies like All the President’s Men or Spotlight? A lot of it isn’t exactly glamorous – so where does the adrenaline rush come from?

For me, the exciting parts are when you make these smaller revelations, and you get a document, and you find a tidbit of information buried deep within the document. Or you are finally able to connect with a source who has some information that can really help you to connect the dots. When you can gather all these tidbits of information, and put together a bigger story, build a bigger case. That, to me, is where the excitement is.

 

Once you find something that opens another door, at some point do see the entire story in your mind? Or do you have to be open and let it breathe the whole time you’re writing, because it could change at any second?

It can change at any second. We have to be open to all of that information. Obviously, you start with an idea of a concept for a story – it could be based on a document that you’ve read, or a tip that you’ve received, but it’s our job not to really take anybody’s word for anything, right? It’s that old adage: If you mother says she loves you, check it out. We need to go and independently verify every piece of information, and be able to put it together in a way that tells the whole story.

Oftentimes when you start on these stories, you do go down unexpected paths in pursuit of the truth. You owe it to your readers and you owe it to the broader truth to go down those paths, wherever they lead.

 

Where was that ‘aha!’ moment, when you knew this was going to work as a story?

We began by reading a lawsuit that had been filed against the sheriff in federal court. It was a RICO case, 427 pages, and it was filled with many different allegations against the sheriff from a host of former employees. And in there was a deposition from a deputy that said ‘We had this intelligence program and it was our job, essentially, to go out and harass citizens – so much so that they either wanted to move out of the county or to sue us.’

We read that, and instantly wanted to learn more. And it was kind of a challenging thing to do. We got a list of homes that deputies had visited as part of this program, and knocked on the doors and ask these people “What has your experience been like with the Sheriff’s Office, and this program in particular?”

One after another, they would say the same things to us. They would say “Deputies would show up at my house, and they didn’t have probable cause, and they didn’t have a warrant. But they would show up in the middle of the night and surround the home with squad cars. And shine flashlights in our windows. They gave us tickets for things like our grass being too long, or there being trash on the side of the house, or a broken-down car.”

And you start to hear a pattern of things that people are telling you independently. And for myself and Neil, in our minds that was when we started to realize that we were onto something. When we were hearing allegations from former deputies that lined up with information that we were able to get in public records that we requested from the sheriff’s office – and that lined up with what one person after another was telling us.

Interestingly, a lot of the reporting came from the Sheriff’s Office’s own documents. And a lot of the wording that we used was their own wording. That made us very sure of what we were reporting.

 

What was the process like with you and Neil?

We are collaborators in the truest sense of the word. We bring different skill sets to the table, but our projects are real collaborations. In this case, I read the federal lawsuit that had been filed, and brought it to Neil: Hey, this is really interesting – is this something that you might want to help me poke around at? And he was a hundred percent on board.

Neil has a background in computer science. He actually worked on Wall Street before he became a journalist. I could describe what he does, and everybody that tries to take a stab at it has done it wrong! But it was in finance, and it was in tech. He had been active with his college newspaper, and really missed doing the righteous work that journalists do, and left finance – and frankly, a big paycheck, to come work at the Tampa Bay Times. He brought some serious coding skills, and analytical skills, and used them to break news and tell stories.

 

Certainly winning a Pulitzer is sweet, but what’s the big payoff for you as a journalist? Does it make you feel like a successful crusader for the community? What does it mean to you?

I will say I’m very lucky to be able to do this work. Our reporters are writing dozens of stories in a day, and they’re all important in their own ways. For us, if we’re going to invest our time and resources in a story, it’s got to be because it’s something we believe is important enough to merit that investment of resources. In the case of this program that the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office was running, it was a program that the sheriff was quite proud of … when we were able to figure out exactly how it was working, and what that meant to people who were being targeted, and present that information to members of the community, and experts in law enforcement, they were pretty stunned. 

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