‘We Had No Idea How Dark This Story Would Get’

This week’s two-part investigation into the explosion of online child sexual abuse imagery drew an enormous response from listeners — and a lot of questions. So we followed up with our guests, the investigative journalists Michael Keller and Gabriel Dance:

What has been the response to this reporting?

Shock. Generally, people — whether it was our editors, people who read our stories, or those who listened to the “Daily” episodes — were shocked to learn how bad the problem was.

After the initial shock, most people became angry, confused and disappointed. Many expressed frustration with the government’s response and outrage at the tech companies’ inability to stop the spread of the imagery. And nearly everyone said they could not believe that people would do such unspeakable acts to children.

The reporting also has spurred rigorous discussions around encryption and privacy online. It raises difficult questions about how far companies should go to protect people’s privacy, especially when there are real and tragic consequences for children.

The producers and editors who worked on these episodes described it as a difficult and emotional experience. You two were immersed in this subject for months and months. How did you deal with it?

To be honest, it was hard. We had no idea how dark this story would get.

Reading hundreds of graphic descriptions of images and videos found in court cases was disturbing. Speaking with survivors of abuse was also difficult, but it was important for us to hear their stories. And we found that these conversations seemed helpful for many of them. There were times during interviews that mothers and daughters would speak with one another for long stretches, without us even asking a question.

We also spoke with dozens of people who have been working on this issue for years, particularly at children’s rights organizations. One of the emotions they consistently conveyed was frustration over inaction and people turning away from the issue. And so knowing that we were drawing attention to an issue that deserved it became a major motivation for reporting on such a tough subject.

Has the reporting triggered any changes within the companies, organizations or law enforcement agencies you focused on in the episodes?

Yes. Let’s start with the government.

Immediately after our stories were published, a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress that would require tech companies to retain information on accounts found with illegal photos and videos for a longer period of time to assist law enforcement with investigations. Lawmakers say this is part of a larger package of bills they intend to introduce to address issues raised by our reporting.

Companies have responded as well. Several have said they will begin to look for the imagery more aggressively. For instance, spokespeople from Dropbox and Cloudflare said that they would implement more rigorous measures to find and remove the imagery. Others, including Yahoo, have changed their practices around video scanning. Microsoft, which we talked about a lot in these episodes, has expanded the team of employees that monitors this kind of activity and also unveiled a tool to detect adult predators trying to lure children into dangerous situations.

Then there are the advocacy groups. They’ve told us that our reporting has been crucial to raising awareness of an issue that they’ve felt has been underreported for years. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which for the first time released the number of reports filed by each company as a result of our reporting, told us that the stories have brought more attention to the issue than anything else in a decade.

A lot of listeners, moved and outraged by what they heard, have asked what they can do about the crisis of child sexual abuse imagery and how they can help victims. What’s the answer?

One of the gratifying things about reporting on an issue like this is seeing the response from readers and listeners who want to help.

Foremost, it’s important to educate yourself and your children regarding the perils of the internet. We wrote a bit about that here.

There are several domestic organizations working to help end this terrible epidemic, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Thorn, RAINN and the National Association to Protect Children. There are also international organizations, including the Canadian Center for Child Protection.

One survivor we spoke with on the podcast, Alicia Kozakiewicz, is working to secure funding for law enforcement teams across the nation tasked with investigating these terrible crimes.

Finally, there is always value in calling your representatives to say that this is an issue you feel is important and demands more funding or accountability.

Part 1 of the series begins with the description of a note to The Times’s tip line. Has the person who sent that tip stayed in touch with you?

We haven’t heard from this person. The tip came in anonymously, so there was no way for us to reach out.

The person was right to be outraged, and instead of doing nothing, acted on that outrage. For that, we are grateful.

What’s the next phase of this reporting for you?

We plan to keep investigating and to stay on top of developments from the companies and lawmakers. And, of course, if anyone wants to send us tips for areas we might have missed, they can find a number of secure options at nytimes.com/tips. Thanks to all of you for listening.

Talk to Michael Keller and Gabriel Dance on Twitter: @mhkeller and @gabrieldance. And Michael Barbaro: @mikiebarb.

To make today’s episode of “The Field,” about Nevada’s most powerful labor union, the producers Clare Toeniskoetter and Austin Mitchell traveled to Las Vegas, where they met Jennifer Medina, a Times national correspondent.

When our team spoke with Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the question of who can defeat President Trump was front of mind. But for the voters whom Clare, Austin and Jenny spoke with in Nevada, the focus was on an entirely different issue: health care.

You can listen to the story here or by searching for “The Field” wherever you get your podcasts. And below, a few photos from the trip (which was both Clare and Austin’s first time in Vegas).

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