The Value of Listening

Implausible Strip-Search Complaint Becomes a Big Story

When Renee Ferguson first heard the angry woman on the telephone, the outrage almost crackled over the line.  The caller told the WMAQ-TV investigative reporter of being strip-searched at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, and her story sounded incredible, Ferguson acknowledged to workshop participants.

Denise Pullian, a businesswoman and mother, said that she had been pulled aside by U.S. Customs inspectors after arriving on a flight from London.  As a suspected drug smuggler, she was taken to a room and subjected to a humiliating body search.  She said she was even forced to remove a tampon to prove that she was not hiding contraband.

Listening in disbelief, Ferguson nearly dismissed the call but decided to meet Pullian and investigate the allegations.  Later, when Ferguson approached a customs official about the story, she was told that  Pullian indeed had been searched — although the official claimed that she volunteered to remove the tampon.  The official said Pullian fit the profile of a drug courier, but Ferguson found another reason she believed the African-American woman — and others like her — had been searched:  the color of their skin.

In what eventually became a series of prize-winning reports, Ferguson discovered through court documents and other sources that some 2,000 African-American women throughout the country had undergone strip searches at O’Hare and other airports, in numbers disproportionate to their race and gender.  The women ranged in age from their early 20s to late 50s. Officials found drugs in less than one-fourth of the cases.  “If  I was wrong 77 percent of the time, I would lose my job,” Ferguson said.  So what began as one caller’s astounding story mushroomed into a major example of racial profiling. 

Recounting the genesis of her stories for the workshop, Ferguson said Pullian had approached other media who either rebuffed or ignored her.  Ferguson suggested that some reporters, particularly non-minorities, may have rejected the story because such the incident seemed so farfetched.  “When covering issues of race and ethnicity, I urge you to be open to the possibility that what seems to be outrageous to the majority might be the norm for the minority,” she told workshop participants.

As an African American, Ferguson did not argue that a reporter’s race guaranteed sensitivity.  However, she said that reporters should be aware of their natural constituencies, noting that, because of her race and gender, she may have put the women in her story more at ease.  Further, she said she made a special effort to listen just as openly to those who had difficulties articulating their experience or who spoke imperfect English.

As a result of her stories, Ferguson said, congressional hearings were held and the customs officials stepped up their training on issues of race, gender and the conducting of body searches.  The agency also changed its policy on strip searches and received $9 million for body-scanning equipment to be placed in airports. In the end, the stories showed that a local television news department can have a national impact, while achieving strong ratings.  “Good stories do sell,”  Ferguson said.

As she spoke about the perils of racial profiling, Ferguson cautioned against stereotyping or making assumptions about people.  That drew a response from Paula Madison, vice president and news director of WNBC in New York, who stressed that journalists should also avoid making such mistakes when dealing with each other in their own newsrooms.

“We can’t be guilty of racial profiling within our newsrooms,” she said.  “I mean we’ve got to be really, really careful about that because you cannot use assumptions or stereotypes.  They don’t fit.  None of them.  No assumptions.  No assumptions.”