NPR Series Opens Doors for Journalist Shannon Service ’97

NPR’s Morning Edition rarely airs two-part series, and when it does, the segments rarely total 15-plus minutes, “which in American radio is just an absolute eternity,” says independent producer and reporter Shannon Service ’97.

But the public radio network’s flagship morning news program did just that June 19 and 20, when it aired Service’s two-part series on slavery on Thai fishing boats. The investigative report exposed the horrific abuses suffered by tens of thousands of Cambodian and Burmese men forced to work on boats that are part of Thailand’s huge fishing fleet; the many layers of corruption that have enabled this practice to take root; and the direct link it has to American plates, where a large portion of the Thai catch lands.

Morning Edition’s generous allocation of airtime was a nod to the sheer size of the project—Service and her reporting partner, Becky Palmstrom, did five months of interviews in four Southeast Asian countries—as well as its importance to the growing conversation about all things related to fish, oceans, and sustainability.

The airdates may have come and gone, but the story has legs. Service is now coproducing a feature-length documentary on the same subject. She’s also been invited to discuss the seafood supply chain at the SXSW (South by Southwest) Eco conference in Austin, Texas, October 3.

Service, who lives on a houseboat in Sausalito, California, earned a master’s degree from the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Becky Palmstrom was one of her classmates. Before coming to Berkeley, Palmstrom lived for a time in Myanmar, Burma, where she kept hearing—in hushed voices—about men disappearing from their villages.

“They’d go to Thailand for work, and they’d just not come back,” Service says. “Nobody knew why, nobody could find them, and it was really scary. Most people didn’t have a lot of information, but they knew it was linked to the Thai fishing fleet.”

Service and Palmstrom decided to pursue the story together after graduation, and with NPR’s support, they set off for Asia. What they found there would rattle even the most seasoned investigative reporter. The disappeared are, in fact, victims of human trafficking. They are kidnapped, smuggled, and sold to rogue boat captains; forced to work at sea for months or years on end; and subjected to unthinkable abuse and torture, such as being whipped with the tail of a stingray, or witnessing a fellow crew member’s beheading.

“Abuse was so common out there,” one former slave told Service, “that we would be pulling up arms and legs in our nets.”

How did this happen?

“The simple answer,” Service says, “is it happened through corruption every single step of the way. But you can’t really go on national radio and accuse entire countries of corruption without having a lot of evidence, so that’s where the real reporting came in.”

She and Palmstrom gathered “bulletproof” evidence of the police, the military, and government officials taking payoffs or simply looking the other way, so as not to interrupt the flow of workers into the industry, and Service read some 2,000 pages of international legal documents on fishing, human trafficking, and migrants.

In Bangkok, she and Palmstrom confronted the Thai Ministry of Labor with their findings.

“They were really, really nervous about this story,” Service says. “They’ve been able to allow this to happen for years without journalists knocking on their door.”

She hopes the NPR story, and others that pick up where it left off, will put pressure on the Thai government to take this issue seriously.

“Americans have demonstrated that if we are aware of an issue we can take action on it,” Service says. “So I was really excited about the opportunity to bring this to NPR’s very large national audience and hopefully have it make an impact.”

Service now avoids eating Thai fish, but she can’t stop thinking about it. After all, it might just define her career.

“When you steep yourself in fishing for almost a year—when you get down to the level where you’re reading industry journals and talking to fishermen and captains and interviewing ambassadors who care about this issue—you learn a lot about that sort of world, and then it opens a bunch of doors for new stories,” she says. “I’m hoping at this point to really follow up on marine-based stories. There’s a lot happening on the oceans right now that’s pretty scary and has huge environmental and social consequences for all of us. That’s the direction I’m trying to push my work in right now, and it comes directly out of the story I just did.”

Christina Barber-Just