In Depth

KNBC’s Grover: Local Crusader

Investigative Reporter Digs Beneath the Surface on the L.A. Environmental Beat

As an experienced investigative reporter for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, Joel Grover has been doing exemplary work for a dozen years, and has been recognized with a slew of awards, including the Peabody, 16 Emmys and five National Edward R. Murrow Awards. He knows quite a bit about reporting and recently has done two major environmental pieces.

“I’m fortunate at KNBC that I have a lot of latitude to pursue the stories that I’m interested in, and everything I do I feel a real passion about. These two stories especially so,” said Mr. Grover.

One was of particular importance to Mr. Grover because it deals with children. As the father of twin 15-month-olds, he was particularly upset to learn that there was lead in the drinking water at L.A. public schools. “This was more than an environmental story,” said Mr. Grover. He and his team spent three months investigating Los Angeles County schools, discovering that thousands of children had been drinking from water fountains in which they found an unsafe amount of lead. To make matters worse, district officials had known about the problem for years but never told the public.

“Lead over a long period of time can affect brain development,” Mr. Grover said. “A kid wouldn’t be sick for a week or a month, but it has long-term effects on learning.”

After KNBC’s story, there were hearings about the problem and promises were made to do districtwide testing in all 800 L.A. schools. “On the November ballot, there is a school bond measure that if passed, would allocate $50 million to get the lead out of the water in the schools through a variety of means,” he said.

The other major environmental story, “Contaminated,” won a Murrow Award. Mr. Grover’s broadcast uncovered health hazards at one of Los Angeles’ two wholesale produce markets, the Seventh Street Produce Market downtown. “This is where thousands of Southern California restaurants and stores get their fruits and vegetables. Like most major cities, L.A. has a wholesale market where restaurants and markets come to buy their food,” said Mr. Grover.

The market supplied millions of people in California, Arizona and Nevada. “The story began when we got a tip from a whistleblower, someone who was a vendor at the Seventh Street Market,” said Mr. Grover. “The conditions there were violating state and county health regulations. He said the health inspectors scoffed at his complaints—repeatedly. He had left the market, refusing to work there, but he felt that something had to be done.”

First the producers did initial research on their own, verifying the tip. “The tipster had hundreds of photos to back up his claim—pictures of rodent-gnawed boxes of produce and broken pipes and filth. But you can’t commit months documenting and investigating a problem if we’re not really confident that it exists,” said Mr. Grover.

“We don’t break the law. We walk into places and if we’re asked to leave, we do. Nobody asked us to leave the market when we went in.” After two days, they knew they had a story.

They planned a two-prong attack—first, the undercover portion, in which they spent months at the market documenting the filthy conditions, which the Health Department knew about; and second, confronting the inspectors. Week after week, KNBC cameras documented filthy conditions such as workers dumping trash wherever they please and workers picking up produce off the sludgy ground and selling it as though it were clean.

Thanks to KNBC and Mr. Grover’s story, the owners of the market spent a fortune cleaning the place, which is now spotless.

Los Angeles is a huge city, but it’s not unique. “My advice to environmental journalists is that if you work in a major city, there is a wholesale produce market like this where restaurants get their produce,” said Mr. Grover. “It is a story that is worth looking into. Many health departments in major cities are lax.

“If you don’t have an insider like we did, the first thing to do is pull the inspection records. And a good reporter can go into these markets and just talk to people. We do a lot of undercover work. You can do this kind of story—and the lead story, too—with just a little bit of old-fashioned journalism.”