Toner Prize winners for Roy Moore coverage tell students how to keep their cool when the reporting heats up

Above: Washington Post videographer Thomas LeGro and reporter Stephanie McCrummen share how they exposed an undercover sting operation meant to discredit their reporting.

In the age of fake news and distrust of the media, Washington Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen emphasizes how important it is for journalists “to stay calm, keep our heads down, and do our job.” McCrummen and her colleague, videographer Thomas LeGro, were part of the team of Washington Post reporters awarded the 2018 Toner Prize, which recognizes excellence in political reporting, for the paper’s work covering allegations of sexual misconduct against U.S Senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore. The Toner Prize was awarded to the team by the Newhouse School in March.

McCrummen and LeGro spoke to Newhouse students in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium Oct. 9. Joel Kaplan, associate dean for professional graduate studies, moderated the 90-minute event where the two speakers shared “the story behind the story” with Newhouse students.

McCrummen was in Alabama writing a story on Moore’s supporters during his run for the Senate in late 2017 when she discovered allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Moore, many from women who were underage at the time.

“I never would have heard [about Moore’s sexual misconduct] had I not been in a place, talking to people, and listening for things that I wasn’t expecting, and being patient. That’s part of old-fashioned reporting,” McCrummen said.

During an interview with McCrummen, one of Moore’s friends off-handedly mentioned a note about the senate candidate’s past involvement with teenage girls. McCrummen pursued the story and found Leigh Corfman, who said that she was molested by Moore when she was 14.

While McCrummen was vetting the details of Corfman’s story, another woman approached the reporting team. Jaime Phillips claimed that Moore got her pregnant and forced her to get an abortion. McCrummen found inconsistencies in Phillips’ story, and suspected she might be working for Moore or an affiliated group. When McCrummen returned home, she discovered a counter-sting operation was already in the planning stages in her newsroom.

“I’m flying back from Alabama. When I land, I get this message from my editor saying, ‘Don’t call, don’t speak to anyone, come directly to the newsroom,’” McCrummen said.

The team hatched a plan to have McCrummen wear a microphone while meeting with Phillips in a restaurant in Alexandria. LeGro filmed the interaction on his phone from a neighboring table.

“I immediately began researching how to shoot on an iPhone without having the screen turn on,” LeGro said. “I found a pretty sketchy app in the App Store that would turn off your screen.”

At the restaurant, though the interview was off the record, McCrummen told Phillips she  was being recorded, and Phillips consented. Days later, Post reporters shadowed Phillips and witnessed her walking into the offices of Project Veritas, an organization known for conducting sting operations to discredit the media. After that discovery, the Post published LeGro’s video, saying the off-the-record agreement had been made in bad faith.

The video went viral. McCrummen believed it was so powerful because it showed real reporting work.

“The public is really hungry right now to understand what we do as reporters,” McCrummen said.

In the question and answer segment at the end of the event, McCrummen reminded Newhouse students that good journalism requires keeping a cool head.

“Emotion is not something that belongs in writing. Action belongs in writing. Sometimes the stories that move you the most are the ones that are told the most cleanly.”

Olivia Conte is a sophomore in the broadcast and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.