Thursday, January 5, 2012

Fairtrade International Investigation Leads to Questions of Bloomberg's Journalistic Integrity

After two days of picking cotton, child laborer Clarisse Kambire
carries a large wicker bushel of fiber from the field to a storehouse
almost a mile away. Photographer: © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

 "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
- Mark Twain

When a journalist accuses Fairtrade producers of forced child labour, the charges must be taken seriously followed by a thorough investigation. However, when a reporter's story proves to be unsubstantiated, there is a need to question the media. In relation to Bloomberg's story on child labour on a Fairtrade certified organic cotton farm, my own inquiry found the farmers cited in the December 15th story were not certified as the article claims (Read Journey for Fair Trade: Bloomberg News Falsely Accuses Fairtrade of Child Labour). Despite contacting the editors directly with the discrepancy, they held to their story.

On January 3rd, Bloomberg editors once again attacked Fairtrade International in an editorial citing their journalist, Cam Simpson's investigation into child labour in Burkina Faso.

In recent years, the fair-trade movement has presented itself as an answer, offering, at a premium, goods and commodities certified to have been produced without exploitation. It is thus all the more appalling that a fair trade program in Burkina Faso has been shown, in an investigation published in Bloomberg Markets Magazine, to have used child laborers to produce cotton that wound up in most of the cotton-underwear lines sold by Victoria’s Secret.

The scandal is a reminder that fair-trade stamps are only meaningful to the extent the unregulated organizations that grant them abide by their promise to enforce their own standards. The largest of these, Fairtrade International, which certified the Burkina Faso cotton, is investigating its mistake.

However, further inquiries have found the real scandal is Bloomberg's reporter falsifying and sensationalizing the entire story. On the same day of Bloomberg's editorial, the findings of Fairtrade International investigation was published. The results raise many serious questions about the journalistic integrity of Bloomberg's Editors Flynn McRoberts and Melissa Pozsgay, their reporter Cam Simpson, and photo journalist, Chris Ratcliffe. For the sake of transparency, I have republished the press release from Fairtrade International investigation here:

Fairtrade International Counters Allegations in Bloomberg article on Burkina Faso cotton

03 January 2012

In accordance with its internal Child Protection Policy and Procedures, Fairtrade International followed up on the allegations made in the Bloomberg article, “Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton,” published on 15 December 2011. We have found substantial contradictions in the facts presented in the article based on the information we have obtained from our field assessment.

Fairtrade International takes any allegations on the violation of human rights of the child very seriously. Following Cam Simpson’s allegations, we travelled with leading officials of UNPCB to the village of Benvar in Burkina Faso. We met the Fairtrade cotton producers and impacted children and families identified in the Bloomberg article. The aim of our trip was to conduct an assessment, develop a remediation process for impacted children, and provide support to UNPCB to further develop their actions plans to eliminate child labour and implement child protection measures.

Fairtrade conducted child safe interviews with the people identified in the article as children (persons below the age of 18). We can report that at the time of our interviews the “girl” and her family identified in the article were secure and safe. However, the information they gave us regarding the facts reported and the methods the journalist used concerns us greatly.

Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, sits on a bench in the room
where she sleeps in the home of her foster parent and his family.
Photographer: © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Most significantly, according to our information, the “girl” who featured prominently in the article is not 13 years old as reported. We have seen her birth certificate and corroborated her age with school records. She cannot accurately be described as a child as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (i.e., under 18 years old).

In addition, she is not involved in cotton growing and therefore is not participating in Fairtrade certified cotton production. Instead she works on a family-owned vegetable farm, growing locally consumed products for which there are no Fairtrade Standards nor Fairtrade certified producers in this region.

Clarisse Kambire, right, works with other child laborers to harvest
organic cotton grown in the fields of her farmer foster parent.
© Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Furthermore, the “girl” and her family members report that she “was woken up early one morning and asked to pose in the cotton field” by the journalist, “who introduced himself as working for an orphanage project and needed to select three children to be part of this program.”

Given these inaccuracies, Fairtrade refutes the information about the “girl” and her family as presented in the Bloomberg article and accordingly questions the credibility of the report.

We also question the methods used by the journalist to obtain the reported information. Fairtrade International strongly recommends that media adopt child protection methods and a rights-based approach to relate with those they identify as persons under the age of 18. Identifying a young person by their first and last names, through images, or where they live, and providing alleged first-hand testimonies from them on issues of grave human rights concern may put them at extreme risk. All effort is needed to ensure that journalists and others who come into contact with children and young people follow protection guidelines as indicated in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Additionally, we recommend that journalists follow the Guidelines for Journalist and Media Professionals developed by the Intentional Federation of Journalist (published here).

On one point we do agree: More work is needed to ensure that children in the cotton producing communities of Burkina Faso and elsewhere enjoy their rights to protection and increased well being. As part of our ongoing work in this area, and in agreement with UNPCB, Fairtrade International has prioritised further training on child labour and child protection for its members which will begin in early 2012.

Child labour is a global problem. No person or product certification system can provide a 100% guarantee that a product is free of child labour. What Fairtrade guarantees is that if we find breaches to our child labour requirements, we take immediate action to protect children. We work to prevent farms that use child labour from entering the Fairtrade system, and support them and their communities to tackle the problem. Fairtrade has chosen to work in products and regions with known risk of child labour because this is where our work is most needed.

Fairtrade believes that child labour can only be effectively addressed in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders, including government, private sector, NGOs, trade unions, producers, their communities and children themselves. We continue to engage with all stakeholders to ensure increased well being of children and young people living in and around Fairtrade communities.

Read Fairtrade’s response to Bloomberg’s article of 23 December, 2011. ([tt_news]=264)
For further information please contact Anita Sheth, Senior Advisor Social Compliance and Development (Informal Sectors) at and Caroline Hickson, Director of Brand and Communication at

Where is the Integrity of Bloomberg Media? 

Unless the bar for journalistic integrity is exceptionally low, it is intolerable for any editor to accept a journalist's claim of six weeks investigating the subject of forced child labour on Fairtrade certified organic cotton fields in Burkina Faso when the final story is centered on assembling a few local children they assumed were under 18, including Clarisse, for a photo shoot in and around a cotton field. Not to mention Cam Simpson's UNSUBSTANTIATED claim the farmers he interviewed utilizing child labour were Fairtrade certified growers when they are clearly not. When I say unsubstantiated, the farmers were not listed with the only certifying organization in the country and the editors of Bloomberg have failed to provide me with their other sources for independent verification despite my repeated requests.

As for interviewing children, Cam Simpson has complete disregard for their rights in the name of getting a sensationalized story for corporate media. After assuming Clarisse was a minor, his failure to utilize a child-safe approach when interviewing the children in the story is readily apparent to any reader. The aforementioned guidelines from the International Federation of Journalists for protecting child rights in media is clearly laid out, to include the need to address the media's tendency toward sensationalism.
Journalists need to be aware of the consequences of their reporting. The co-operation of media organisations and journalists and their orientation towards safeguarding the rights and the dignity of children and young adults is extremely important for all who strive for wider recognition of children’s rights. Sensational coverage may distort and exploit a serious problem, doing more harm than good. Some editors claim that sensationalism permits serious social issues to capture the attention of readers and viewers. However, such coverage rarely analyses the social and economic causes of abuse of children: the dislocation of communities and families, homelessness, corrupt employers, pimps, the drug culture or why parents in poverty sell a child to support the rest of the family.  The positive story of children, their lives and their rights is not being told in full. To examine how this can be changed requires examination of the professional conditions in which media work, a review of the principles or guidelines journalists and programme makers should follow, and the obstacles that stand in the way of good journalism. 

…The aim of the guidelines—Pages 61-63—is to raise the standards of journalism in reporting on issues involving children, and to encourage media to promote children’s rights and give them a voice. The code promotes:

  • respect for the privacy of children and protection of their identity unless it is demonstrably in the public interest; 
  • the need to give children access to media to express their own opinion;
  • the obligation to verify information before publication; 
  • the need to consider the consequences of publication and to minimize harm to children.
The code will also help media to avoid:
  • sexual, violent or victim-focused programming and images that are potentially damaging to children; 
  • stereotypes and sensational presentation of journalistic material.

If Clarisse Kambire had been 13 as the story alleges, clearly Bloomberg has protected neither her identity nor her privacy. We do hear her views, however the truthfulness of the reporting needs further investigation on behalf of Bloomberg editors since Clarisse doesn't actually work in a cotton field as the Fairtrade International investigation clearly points out (yes editors, a thorough inquiry entails more than simply asking the reporter and letting it go at that). The obligation to verify information before publication has yet to be established by Bloomberg editors who who have repeatedly refused to answer that specific inquiry. As for the consequences of publishing an evidently falsified story, I am not convinced Cam Simpson or his editors really considered it.

Page 57 of the Guidelines for Journalist and Media Professionals delineates clearly the steps to interviewing a child while respecting their rights, and on page 63 they also establish the bar for journalism:

Journalists and media organisations shall strive to maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct in reporting children’s affairs and, in particular, they shall:
  1. strive for standards of excellence in terms of accuracy and sensitivity when reporting on issues involving children; 
  2. avoid programming and publication of images which intrude upon the media space of children with information which is damaging to them; 
  3. avoid the use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children; 
  4. consider carefully the consequences of publication of any material concerning children and shall minimise harm to children; 
  5. guard against visually or otherwise identifying children unless it is demonstrably in the public interest; 
  6. give children, where possible, the right of access to media to express their own opinions without inducement of any kind; 
  7. ensure independent verification of information provided by children and take special care to ensure that verification takes place without putting child informants at risk; 
  8. avoid the use of sexualised images of children; 
  9. use fair, open and straight forward methods for obtaining pictures and, where possible, obtain them with the knowledge and consent of children or a responsible adult, guardian or carer; 
  10. verify the credentials of any organisation purporting to speak for or to represent the interests of children. 
  11. not make payment to children for material involving the welfare of children or to parents or guardians of children unless it is demonstrably in the interest of the child.

Obviously there was no strive for standards of excellence, but merely sensationalism. Had Clarisse been a minor, fully disclosing her identity and location was clearly a violation of her rights. The quotes from Clarisse and the journalistic integrity of Cam Simpson are in question since Clarisse doesn't work on a Fairtrade certified farm, but on "family-owned vegetable farm, growing locally consumed products for which there are no Fairtrade Standards nor Fairtrade certified producers in this region," and he would have known that if verified the status of the farmer with UNPCB

Regarding the photographs, both Chris Ratcliffe and Cam Simpson need to be reviewed for assembling children in the area for a staged photo shoot. This includes LYING to the children and family as reported in the Fairtrade International investigation which states, the “girl” and her family members report that she “was woken up early one morning and asked to pose in the cotton field” by the journalist, “who introduced himself as working for an orphanage project and needed to select three children to be part of this program.” Additionally when Bloomberg editors published the photos there was a blatant disregard for guarding against visually identifying the children in the publication.

To continue my previous inquiry with parties involved in the story, I emailed Bloomberg Editiors Flynn McRoberts and Melissa Pozsgay, and reporter Cam Simpson once again:

Dear Bloomberg Editors and Journalist Cam Simpson,
Yesterday Fairtrade International released their results from their investigation into your allegations of child labour in organic Fairtrade cotton ( The inquiry results lead to serious questions regarding the journalistic integrity of the reporter Cam Simpson and the photographer Chris Ratcliffe, as well as raise questions regarding your motives for utilizing such a low bar in your approach to journalism.

My inquiry is simple since you seem to be attacking Fairtrade International through a series of articles the past month, do you have a response to these findings on your journalistic methodologies? 

I will openly publish your response on my next blog post as well.

The response from Bloomberg's Spokesperson, Meghan Womack was direct and to the point, "Your email was passed along to my attention. We've requested a copy of the birth certificate. We have four independent age verifications. We stand by our reporting." 

I am interested to see the results of their verification. To her response I inquired further:

Hello Meghan,
Thank you for your expedient reply. Clarisse has become center stage of the investigation, and out of concern for her reported age as a minor, exactly what steps did her interviewer take in order to protect her rights as set out by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and to comply with the Guidelines for Journalist and Media Professionals developed by the Intentional Federation of Journalist?

I would also like to inquire again as to the verification of Fairtrade certification of the three farmers central to the story, Victorien Kamboule, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, and Louis Joseph Kambire. They were in fact, not certified as Fairtrade by the only certifying agency in the country, the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso (UNPBC). Their roster can also be independently verified by ECOCERT in Burkina Faso. The only two other sources cited are a "local cooperative leader" and a green flag in the photographed field. What additional sources can verify these farmers as Fairtrade, which is the lynch pin of your story?

To this there was no reply from Bloomberg Editors or their Spokesperson. Evidently they stand by their reporter...

What can we do? 
             We can take Direct Action!

Contact your local and national press! Bring this case to social media online! 

Contact the Bloomberg reporter Cam Simpson and his editors Flynn McRoberts and Melissa Pozsgay regarding the falsified story of child labour in Fairtrade certified farms with questionable reporting practices and unsubstantiated linkages. If you take a stand for integrity in media, take Direct Action now:

Demand a transparent and thorough third-party investigation of the story, reporter Cam Simpson and photographer Chris Ratcliffe with full public disclosure of the results by the Bloomberg Editors! 

As Michael noted in the comment below, this has been collaborated in Victoria Secret's investigation as well. The report also provides Clarisse's true age:

This can not be swept under the rug and forgotten - take Action! We can make change happen and bring accountability and transparency to corporate media and reporters like Cam Simpson!

Raise your voice and be heard! Get involved and Take Direct Action on behalf of Fair Trade. Send an email, sign a petition or give Bloomberg's a call directly! Join the campaign and Click here to make a stand!:

Take Direct Action with Bloomberg Media!

Mitch Teberg, MA
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below or catch me on facebook. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:


  1. Limited Brands (Victoria's Secret) released the results of its investigation the day after Fairtrade International.

  2. ^^ Picked it up on Textile Exchange

  3. Go get 'em Mitch!

    On the strength of this I tried to purchase some Fairtrade cotton knickers on their website, but there's nothing listed. Such a shame - they obviously have a great corporate strategy, but no faith in consumers to make a positive choice about Fairtrade and Organic so they haven't bothered to label their Fairtrade products as such.