By KENDALL VALAN
Philadelphia Daily News journalists Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman are no strangers to the risks of investigative reporting in the crime-filled streets of Philadelphia.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning duo will share their firsthand experiences during the keynote speech at this year’s Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association Awards Luncheon Saturday at noon.
“We are really looking forward to it. I think it will be very empowering to talk to a group of women who are journalists and share our same passions,” Ruderman said.
Laker and Ruderman won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for their resourceful reporting of “Tainted Justice,” a 10-month series exposing an all-male police narcotics squad that their reporting found robbed bodegas, raided homes, and even committed several acts of sexual assault, resulting in a review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.
(Federal prosecutors recently announced that the four officers won’t face criminal charges. However, one of the officers was fired and others were suspended, while the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office said it will review the sexual assault allegations against Officer Thomas Tolstoy.)
Laker and Ruderman are strong advocates for women in journalism. During the PWPA luncheon, they plan to discuss many obstacles that they have faced during their time investigative reporting and the advantages of having a female perspective in journalism.
According to Laker, their biggest obstacle was physically tracking down potential victims without a clear idea of names or addresses. The two had to pull hundreds of search warrants to find the officer badge numbers that correlated with the particular raids they were tracking. They eventually uncovered three victims who spoke out against a police officers they accused of sexually assaulting him.
Surveillance video of Philadelphia Police Narcotics Field Unit officers raiding a grocery store (September 11, 2007)
As the two set out to uncover the truth on the Philly streets, threats and constant harassment proved to be another hurdle.
“The (commenters) hoped that we got raped and beaten and [that] if we called 911, no one would come,” Laker said.
During the door-to-door investigation, Laker was also struck by a woman while reporting.
“I knew that if she wasn’t going to kill me, she knew people that could kill me,” Laker said.
She was shaken by the incident, but was able to press on with support from Ruderman.
“When you’re investigating something and you truly believe in it, no one can scare or intimate you away from it,” Laker said.
Laker connected her feelings to a natural sense of vulnerability that women tend to give off more often than men. But she said this susceptibility also worked in the reporters’ favor. The two came off as far less intimidating to the hundreds of strangers that opened their door to the reporters. More residents were interested in what the women had to say, which helped them discover the information they needed.
The duo recently published Busted, “A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love,” to preserve their work and maintain control of their story.
“This is our story, and we want to tell it,” Ruderman said.
While the book illustrates an in-depth look of reporting through the Philly streets, the authors also give their own personal touch through Ruderman’s first-person perspective, and a mix of their own stories away from the newsroom.
“We did it the chick way,” joked Ruderman.
“You get a picture of who Wendy and I are, not only as journalists, but as [normal] people and moms,” Laker added.
Laker and Ruderman proved to be the perfect pair. Both not only agreed to matching well with their writing style, but with their level of passion for investigative reporting.
“She always picks me up when a story has hit a dead end, or what seems like a wall,” Ruderman said. “I get very discouraged and deflated, and Barbara is quite the opposite. She always says ‘Well, we’re going to get this! We’re going to get this!’ She pushes me up the hill. I feel grateful for her, because sometimes I really need that push.”
“I think when you work so closely with someone on investigative stories, you have to trust them, and you have to know that they will work just as hard as you, if not harder,” Laker agreed.
The duo are now working on a new investigative series, “Perfect Prey,” to shine a light on the vulnerability of the disabled and the caregivers who aim to steal their Social Security benefits.