NPR reporter Ari Shapiro received a mysterious-looking white envelope with no return address on Feb. 5. Its contents would help soldiers at Ft. Drum in New York.
"As soon as I opened it, I knew what it was," he said.
Inside was the kind of document that is a reporter's dream.
Shapiro began as an intern for NPR legal reporter Nina Totenberg in 2001 after graduating magna cum laude from Yale. Now he covers the Justice Department. In early January, he got a tip that the Army had instructed the Veterans Administration (VA) to stop helping soldiers at Ft. Drum with military disability paperwork.
Shapiro was able to confirm the story quickly, but he couldn't get any Ft. Drum soldiers or Army officials to speak on tape. So on Jan. 16, he flew to Ft. Drum, 30 miles from the Canadian border. Radio needs voices.
After talking with a disabled soldier for an hour in a restaurant, Shapiro convinced him to go on record. The soldier had been in a benefits briefing last year when a VA counselor said he could no longer assist with paperwork because Ft. Drum soldiers were getting higher disability ratings with VA help than soldiers from other bases. The rating can be crucial to what long-term healthcare and disability payments a solider will receive after being discharged.
The source would only talk on tape if Shapiro promised to not use his name and to distort his voice. Shapiro agreed. "We went to my rental car where I recorded his voice," he said.
There are two issues here that can be problematic in journalism: using anonymous sources and voice distortion. NPR has a policy that anonymity will only be given as a last resort if someone' life or livelihood could be jeopardized.
In the soldier's case, he feared Army retaliation if his identity was known. "Of course he was nervous," said Shapiro. "He was so angry or he wouldn't have talked to me. But it's his life. It's just a story to me. He's putting a lot of trust in me and it's my duty to act responsibly."
Shapiro and his editor, Barbara Campbell, agreed that anonymity was appropriate. "The first question was: Does he deserve anonymity?" said Campbell. "Is this a story we could get from someone putting a name on the record and a voice? That gives strength to your story. I didn't have any doubt though that this guy deserved anonymity.
Distortion was another issue. Campbell checked with other editors. She was concerned that distorting his voice, which can make anyone sound like Darth Vader, would distract listeners from the heart of the story. Her inclination was to say no.
As a backup, Shapiro taped background noise in the restaurant. An NPR engineer altered the man's voice so it sounded human and Campbell signed off.
"Having the man's voice in the piece was crucial," said Campbell. "It just supports your credibility. There's a feeling of authenticity that you get from hearing someone make the accusations that's really strong if they say it in their own words."
Shapiro's first story on Ft. Drum appeared on Morning Edition on Jan. 29, and included the disabled soldier saying, "To be tossed aside like a worn-out pair of boots is pretty disheartening."
The VA confirmed it had stopped helping soldiers. An Army spokesman said the story was true. But the Army Surgeon General's office said there was no Army policy against outside help for soldiers filing disability paperwork.
"I was relieved when the Army and the VA confirmed the story," said Shapiro. "I thought I was going to have to base the whole narrative on anonymous sources, which I had great confidence in, but I can't expect listeners to believe it without a name."
But the Surgeon General's claim undercut a key point of the story --- that a change in policy was denying VA help to soldiers.
Then, the unsigned four-page document arrived in the mail.
It was a memo confirming that during a visit to Ft. Drum on March 30, 2007, Army Col. Becky Baker, in the Office of the Surgeon General, told the VA it should discontinue counseling soldiers on disability ratings.
Shapiro began working to verify the document. He reached out to every name on it, knowing the memo could be fabricated. But everything checked out.
Shapiro also got two people at the meeting on tape for a five-minute-long story focussing on the document. In addition, he asked Col. Baker for an interview. She referred him to the Surgeon General of the Army, Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, who had previously denied the essence of Shapiro's first report and who declined to be interviewed at that point. Shapiro's story aired on Morning Edition on Feb. 7.
After this piece aired, Schoomaker held a press briefing, and later sat down with Shapiro, talking to him for the first time. Shapiro reported on this interview for All Things Considered. Schoomaker blamed the flap on a "miscommunication," and encouraged Ft. Drum soldiers to get in touch with the Army if they think they didn't get the best advice. Morning Edition aired a follow-up story the next day.
NPR posted both the document and the transcript of Shapiro's interview with Schoomaker on its website. All totaled, NPR gave the story 22 minutes.
Investigative reporting is expensive. Shapiro had worried he might be wasting NPR's money by traveling to Ft. Drum with no guaranteed interviews. It could have turned out that he came up empty.
In today's climate of almost-daily media cutbacks, this kind of essential reporting is in jeopardy despite how critical it is. As a result of Shapiro's persistence and NPR's backing, soldiers will (hopefully) get the help they need to claim the benefits they deserve.