A very recent graduate of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has won a prestigious Peabody Award for her work on a KNXV TV investigative series. The series exposed a deadly acceleration defect in Ford Escapes that led to a massive recall of the SUVs. Investigative Producer Lauren Gilger and Investigate Reporter Joe Ducey will talk about the award and their report.
Ted Simons: Our continuing coverage of Arizona technology and innovation focuses tonight on the upcoming Intel international science and engineering fair set for next month at the Phoenix convention center. Here to tell us about this high-profile event is Renee Levin, Intel's community engagement manager, and Sarah Sakha, a student from Xavier College Prepatory School. Sarah will be competing in the science fair. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. Give us an overview now of this fair. What are we talking about?
Renee Levin: This is the largest precollege science fair in the world. We're expecting 1500 students from 70 different countries, regions, and territories that will descend upon Phoenix may 13th-17th. They're competing for $3 million worth of prizes.
Ted Simons: Oh, my goodness. Age range, grade range?
Renee Levin: They are high school students.
Ted Simons: So 9-12.
Renee Levin: Right.
Ted Simons: And they made it to this level by winning earlier competitions?
Renee Levin: Most of them had a competition either at a regional level, a state level, or country level. Sarah won at the state level and she'll be competing in the competition.
Ted Simons: I want to get to Sarah in a second, but let's get back to the actual event. Is it a competition -- How do you compete? Other and judges throw flash cards?
Renee Levin: No. Each project is in an individual category. There's 17 different categories. Animal, science, behavioral science, microbiology, these are just some of the categories. There's a cadre of judges that will go around and each project is reviewed by 10 judges. And then the cohort of judges make the decision on who's the top prize in each individual category.
Ted Simons: That's very exciting. All right, Sarah, you won the state competition. Correct?
Renee Levin: Yes.
Ted Simons: Now you're the international competition, what is your focus? What did you present?
Sarah Sakha: Scientifically I'm in the microbiology, but the special part of this is that science social issues, so I delved into the social aspect of science and the practical application of sustainable Development.
Ted Simons: We're looking at some of your work. You're talking about emergency food products for famine relief?
Sarah Sakha: Yes. There's an increasing number of humanitarian emergencies worldwide today, and there's an acute and immediate need for food relief. And emergency food products or EFPs is provided as food relief, and I was watching a CNN special about the famine and drought in Somalia, and there was a shot of a little child trying to eat an unpalatable dried paste-like substance. Based on that I delved into social issues, and science, and did my project.
Ted Simons: I was going to say, we all watch television and see certain segments, rarely do we wind up trying to change the world because of it. Was it something you were leaning in that direction to begin with? Or did it just really hit you, that one story?
Sarah Sakha: I have a fond interest for social issues and politics, and I'm always catching up on the news, but when I saw the shots of a little child trying to eat it, that was particularly poignant and I decided to -- No better way to do a science projects.
Ted Simons: When you first started to when you won the state award and now you're competing internationally, has the scope or any aspect of the project changed?
Sarah Sakha: Definitely as far as extent of my further research, and I thought more and more about the implication was my project. But this is a continuation of my project last year and took to the competition last year. So the scope has changed.
Ted Simons: So you have you some experience at this level. The international competition, how did Phoenix land this?
Renee Levin:Society for science in the public is the organization that runs the fair. And they went out and determined that Phoenix, L.A., and Pittsburgh are the three cities that it will rotate within the next decade. So we expect -- We will have the fair here in 2013 ,2016 ,and 2019 .
Ted Simons: Wow. That sounds like a lot of responsibility. I would imagine it's not just throw up a sign, open up the airport and let everyone come in. The logistics must be tremendous for something like this.
Renee Levin: You're right. And there's a local arrangements committee made up of businesses, educators, all kinds of volunteers throughout the community, and we're really seeking community support for this program. We need a thousand judges, most of them at a Ph.D. level or bachelors, masters degree, plus six years of experience. We need interpreters from all different languages.
Ted Simons: Interesting.
Renee Levin: we need people to help on the outreach day, which is the public day on Thursday, may 16th. And we will have 4,000 Arizona students attending the fair, and they're going to be doing all kinds of hands-on activities, and making sure the kids get to go through the arena to see all of the projects.
Ted Simons: What about housing? Transportation? Those sorts of things?
Renee Levin: They have booked pretty much every hotel room in Phoenix. We've been working with the local light rail, and the airport, they'll even need greeters at the airport to help the kids and their chaperones make sure they get on the right bus or light rail system to get to their hotel.
Ted Simons: We're looking at some of the folks from the Arizona fair, engineering fair. This is the big kahuna here. The idea of competing, does that spur you on in any way?
Sarah Sakha: It does, of course it's very intimidating with such formidable judges, and so many projects, so many students. But I think the experience of just being to learn from people with -- Like last year's winner, that's just where science lies today.
Ted Simons: But again, it seems like if you were just -- You do care about winning, right? You are gung ho --
Sarah Sakha: yeah. [laughter]
Ted Simons: I want to make sure.
Sarah Sakha: Definitely.
Ted Simons: And where do you plan to go on this? Do you plan to -- You mentioned social issues and science together. Where do you plan -- What's next for you?
Sarah Sakha: At this point it presents a viable food product, so I may try to explore the marketability as the product. But scientifically, doing more research on the potential of the come pounds within the spices. And refining the product itself.
Ted Simons: As far as college is concerned, you've got some places in mind?
Sarah Sakha: I do. I'm a junior so I have a little time, but yes.
Ted Simons: Arizona state is not too far away now. As far as the competition is concerned, again, where, when, and for folks watching this that they may not be able to be a judge, and they may not be able to take part, but they're fascinated by these kids doing these great things, how can they come and watch and be witness to all this?
Renee Levin: I hope they will realize there will be 1500 kids as smart as Sarah at this competition. On Thursday, it's the public day, and it's open, and it's free. So bring your families, bring your students, if you have a school, bring them down and just check out these amazing projects. The students will be there, I believe from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., so you can meet with the students. But really, if you go on the website you can see the wide variety of people that we need.
Ted Simons: Give us that website address.
Renee Levin: WWW.societyforscience.org.
Ted Simons: I think we got it right up there. That's Intel --
Renee Levin: Intel iCEF 2103 .
Ted Simons: That's exactly what it is. And the dates again?
Renee Levin: May 13-17.
Ted Simons: Very good. Good to have you both here and good luck in the competition.
Sarah Sakha: Renee Levin: Thank you.
Lauren Gilger: This started as a nightly news story. A -year-old girl in payson, Arizona, got her first car from her dad, a Ford escape. And she was driving it back from Phoenix where they bought it up to payson, her mom was following her in a car, and the acceleration -- The accelerator stuck. The pedal stuck. She was speeding out of control, and she didn't know how to stop it. So she called her mom, her mom called 911, didn't know what to do for her. So there's would a recording of that and that's how it started.
Ted Simons: Traffic accidents, fatalities, these things happen all the time. What got you guys going on this one?
Joe Ducey: I think part of it, there was a -- call that was made because the mother was following her up to -- Behind her and saw this happening. So it was a heart wrenching dramatic call about "oh, my gosh, my daughter, what's going on! It's out of control, she's going to flip!" And I think that made it a little more something like, what's going on with this car? It could have ended up just a story that aired for 30 seconds on a weekend, but some people saw it, I have to credit our newsroom, took a look, said hey, you may want to take a deeper look, we did, and it's led to this.
Ted Simons: You take a deeper look and decide maybe even a more deep look here. The thought process that goes through on a story like this. Because you never know, you're going to wind up winning a Peabody, having god knows how many vehicles recalled. Take us through this and what you were thinking and what you were doing.
Lauren Gilger: It ended up being over 700,000 vehicles that were recalled. But yeah, it began with a document that was a public record that anybody could have found. But Joe and I called an expert in D.C., with the center for auto safety, and we called him and talked to him and said let's look up this car, and there was a recall on it. And we found there was a notice that had been sent out to dealers after that warning them about the recall repair. But it had never been sent to owners of the cars. So that's all we had to begin with. Then we just kept going with it. We followed it through the inspection of the car, and found that it seemed to be the exact defect that they expected to find is what they found.
Joe Ducey: The one the dealers forewarned about, people never Noe knew there could be an incorrect repair that could cause this other issue.
Ted Simons: How much resistance did you get in following this story?
Joe Ducey: From the station?
Ted Simons: From everyone. From the Ford motor company, to the station, to the whole nine yards.
Joe Ducey: the station was great about allowing these things to happen. They allowed it to be on the air, and as far as it needed to go. Ford never really came back at us. They talked to us, and they said, here's what we're doing, but they never denied what was going on in a lot of this. And they didn't really push us. I expected more and didn't get that.
Ted Simons: What about the family? What kind of relationship did you have with the family?
Lauren Gilger: Ryan bloom had a great story to tell, and we're grateful he told us. He sat down with us twice, once at the beginning and again with joe the day of the recall. And he was incredibly supportive and open, and we were lucky to have it, because without that, there would have been no heart to this story, and he was that.
Ted Simons: Was there a point in the story when you knew obviously you were on to something, and something was leading to something else. Was there a point when you realized we're doing a big thing here. This is not just another investigative report, this is a big investigative report.
Joe Ducey: Yeah, I think initially kind of the moment -- The ah-ha moment would be when we found that second remedy. Typically there's one remedy the recall is basically to fix the car. There was another one. There aren't usually two. Why is there this other one? And then when we had the car -- When the car was inspected by the independent inspector and they found exactly that, we knew there was something bigger.
Ted Simons: Same question to you. When you were in the process of all this, no one knows they're going to win a Peabody award, but you get the feeling you're doing something special, something different. Did you feel that early on or did that grow?
Lauren Gilger: For me it was when the inspection happened. We were watching that inspection, and we saw what we were looking for. I remember trying to understand, I learned a lot about cars through this, but I remember seeing the picture, they stuck a camera under the engine and looked at it. When you saw that cord stuck there and you saw the throttle wide open, that's when I went, oh, my God, this is huge. And yeah, it just got bigger from there. We connected it to the Mazda tribute and continued --
Joe Ducey: I think it's also surrounding yourself -- We're not experts, and you have to surround yourself with the people who know these things. It was crucial in this case. They lead us through the path.
Ted Simons: Kind of an off question here, but when did you know this investigative story was over?
Joe Ducey: That's a good question. I guess -- I still think it's going.
Lauren Gilger: I think it is.
Joe Ducey: There are parts of this that haven't been exposed. We interviewed people around the country who had the same issue even after Saige bloom's incident. And found this was widespread, that they knew about it for 10 years. So there were lawsuits that were settled, details weren't released, all along. So this has been an issue for a long time. And I still think there's more to it.
Ted Simons: Now let's talk about this Peabody award, this business here. How did you find out?
Lauren Gilger: I was watching the podcast at 7 a.m. with my dog, and called joe and he had left his phone at work and I couldn't talk to him all morning. We were like oh, my gosh, does he even know?
Ted Simons:You were you watching the podcast, that means you must have had some idea something could happen.
Lauren Gilger: We had entered, but we were -- I think we were both surprised. I don't think -- This is not something you think is going to happen.
Ted Simons: Your news director at the time noted your stamina, your focus, your passion. You haven't been in the business all that long.
Lauren Gilger: Not very long, no.
Ted Simons: Are you ready now to continue your career knowing that you've been to the mountaintop awfully young?
Lauren Gilger: Yeah, definitely. I've learned so much being at 15, the last year and a half, almost. Joe has been in the business for years and has taught me more than I can imagine. And it's just been a great ride.
Ted Simons: And the award ceremony?
Joe Ducey: It's because of me, by the way.
Ted Simons: All right. I was going to ask you what took so long. Award ceremony in New York City, what, may --
Joe Ducey: in hmm.
Ted Simons: Congratulations to both of you. It's great work, and the honor is something, to feel you made a difference and you helped at least one family, that's got to make you feel good.
Joe Ducey: That's the key. That's rare.
Ted Simons: Good to have you both here. Thank you.
Lauren Gilger: Thank you so much.
Lauren Gilger:Investigative Producer, KNXV TV and former ASU student; Joe Ducey:Investigative Reporter, KNXV TV;