Writing Wrongs

Erin Siegal McIntyre uses traditional journalism, historical research, and photography to investigate the roots of international human rights abuses.

Erin Siegal McIntyre
Erin Siegal McIntyre is an investigative journalist and professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media who researches international human rights. (photo by Caroline Bittenbender)
November 27th, 2023

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In December 2007, Erin Siegal McIntyre had just finished a vacation in Guatemala with her younger sister. While standing in the airport waiting to return home to the U.S., she glanced around the terminal and realized they were surrounded by dozens of American citizens leaving the country with newly adopted Guatemalan children.

At the time, Siegal McIntyre was working as a freelance photojournalist and started thinking about how to come back and photograph the scene.

Siegal McIntyre returned to New York envisioning a potentially heartwarming, feel-good story about international adoption. But English and Spanish newspaper clips from the previous two decades revealed a pattern of kidnappings, baby laundering, and corruption in international adoption between the U.S. and Guatemala.

“I didn’t pitch the story as a superficial, heart-warming one because there was clearly more to it,” she says. “It wasn’t just about happy families adopting kids. It was, in many cases, about coercion, profit and power.”

It helped launch the photojournalist into a new direction: investigative journalism.

Today, Siegal McIntyre continues to uncover stories that have not yet been told, and she teaches her students at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media how to do the same.

Searching for a challenge

While Siegal McIntyre always had a knack for writing, she wanted a challenge. In 2001, she enrolled in the photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

But 18 months later, she dropped out.

“Art school was fantastic, but it felt like I wasn’t getting enough intellectually,” Siegal McIntyre says. “I’ve always thrived on challenge.”

After a year of taking night classes at Harvard and waitressing during the day, she returned to Manhattan to attend the Parsons School of Design as a dual-degree major in writing and photography.

Siegal McIntyre’s freelance career evolved quickly. She began pitching and photographing stories for news organizations like Reuters and The New York Times and was hired as a staff photographer at the United Nations to photograph world leaders during the General Assembly. During this time, she continued to work nights in bars and clubs.

After finishing college, she taught herself audio and video production, and began filing multimedia stories for radio, print, and web in addition to working as a photojournalist.

“I felt like I could do all kinds of news stories,” Siegal McIntyre says. “But I still didn’t know how to dig deeply.”

Her yearning to further challenge her storytelling capabilities led her to apply to the master’s program at the Columbia Journalism School, where she would follow her passion for investigative reporting.

After being accepted to the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia, Siegal McIntyre pursued research into the legislative history of international adoption between Guatemala and the United States. She worked on defining a long and complicated chain of operations that linked American parents, adoption agencies, lawyers, nannies, medical professionals, lab tech workers, facilitators, and others in both countries.

“There was a large financial motivation and a variety of people involved: judicial clerks, judges, a whole host of characters,” Siegal McIntyre says. “But none of those links in the chain necessarily knew what the other links were doing.”

Research led Siegal McIntyre to a cold-call with an adoptive mother from Tennessee named Betsy Emmanuel — and she could hardly believe the story she was told. Emmanuel had tried to adopt multiple children from Guatemala, including a young girl named Fernanda, and two had forcibly disappeared during the adoption process.

Against all odds, Emmanuel managed to join forces with Mildred Alvarado, Fernanda’s birth mother, who was also trying to find out what had happened to the child. Together, they unraveled the truth behind the kidnapping. Their story unfolds in Siegal McIntyre’s first book, “Finding Fernanda,” which was published in 2012 and exposes criminal networks and fraudulent practices in international adoption.

The book went on to win multiple awards, including an Overseas Press Club Citation for Best Reporting on Latin America.

“The main focus of my work is accountability,” Siegal McIntyre says. “Most of the time that means connecting the dots to reveal information that might have been previously kept hidden. It usually comes down to tracking power and following the money.”

Investigating problems at the border

In 2010, Siegal McIntyre moved to Tijuana, Mexico, where she spent a decade living and working as an independent journalist. In the border city that sits just south of California, she experienced life between two nations and began raising her daughter Sofia.

“As a single parent, I would strap her onto my chest and bring her out on assignment,” Siegal McIntyre says. “Even reporting for radio, she’d sometimes help hold the mic.”

On the border, Siegal McIntyre wrote about various topics, with a focus on immigration, deportation, policy, and culture. She also helped foreign reporters visiting the border city as a “fixer,” or local producer.

In Tijuana, interactions with border officials are a part of everyday life. Over the years, as stories continued to emerge about various alleged crimes and cross-border shootings involving the U.S. Border Patrol, Siegal McIntyre grew interested in the institutional culture of the agency.

She’s now working on a second book that focuses on the evolution of culture within the agency over the last 50 years. Unlike the single character-driven narrative in “Finding Fernanda,” the project focuses on a broad range of experiences of those within the Border Patrol.

“I think it’s overdue,” Siegal McIntyre says. “It’s one of the hardest projects I’ve taken on because of the massive amount of information to incorporate.”

One component of Siegal McIntyre’s research involves finding and talking to hundreds of former agents who served in the last 20 to 50 years. Some have survived dangerous and harrowing experiences, and some have been involved in alleged criminal activity.

“I’m always shocked by how many people want to tell their stories,” Siegal McIntyre says. “There’s a level of candor that I find so impressive. I think it speaks to how many former Border Patrol employees just haven’t been asked about their experiences.”

One of the largest federal law enforcement agencies in the nation, the U.S. Border Patrol is also one of the least successful federal organizations when it comes to recruiting and retaining women as agents. Just 5% of its 19,000 officers are women.

Last spring, Siegal McIntyre pitched and reported an hour-long documentary for “Reveal” — a weekly national news show from The Center for Investigative Reporting — on the “fearless five percent,” as female agents are known. When conducting interviews for the documentary, one source she spoke with was Tina Lopez, the first Latina admitted to the Border Patrol as an agent in 1975. She was part of the inaugural class allowing women in the agency.

During their first conversation, Lopez recounted her memory of being raped by a classmate, being sent home, and later suing the agency and winning.

“It felt like her experience had been erased,” Siegal McIntyre says. “She kept repeating, ‘How did you find me? I thought no one would ever care.’”

Connecting the dots

Siegal McIntyre’s focus on investigative reporting changed her relationship with photography.

“I still photograph my own stories, but I also use my cameras as a practical tool to capture details that can enable more vivid written description,” Siegal McIntyre says.

Investigative journalism can be a long, tedious process involving research spanning decades, countless hours of fact-checking, and dozens of interviews.

“You have to have structure or else you’re just going to be lost under a mountain of information, which is where I currently am,” Siegal McIntyre says with a laugh. “But there is a method to the madness.”

One of the challenges Siegal McIntyre faces in her work is accessing previously unreleased public information and datasets from government agencies. To do this, she uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which requires the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased documents from any government agency upon public request.

With help from a First Amendment lawyer, Siegal McIntyre has filed two FOIA lawsuits within the past two years. So far, she’s received hundreds of pages of information that she needs to write her book and is looking forward to receiving more.

Siegal McIntyre often asks sources the same question multiple times in different ways to check if their answers are consistent. By combining first-hand accounts with unreleased government documents, she aims to paint a vivid picture of how the Border Patrol’s culture has changed over time.

Hunting for clues is invigorating for Siegal McIntyre, and she strives to recreate that feeling in the classroom. Students in her upper-level journalism classes investigate real issues, form journalistic hypotheses, and strategize ways to prove or disprove an investigative thesis.

In Fall 2020, one of her classes led an investigation into whether the state of North Carolina was accurately reporting deaths from COVID-19 within its jails and prisons. Students researched state prison history and filed public records requests for autopsy reports. It turned out that the state was not accurately reporting the numbers. This work was highlighted in North Carolina Health News, INDY Week, VICE, and other outlets.

“Once you take the first steps, reporting can feel exciting instead of tedious, and things tend to snowball,” Siegal McIntyre says. “I want my students to be passionate about public service. Being able to have early wins in terms of collecting information and connecting dots is the best kind of motivation. It’s amazing to see what even a small group of dedicated students can accomplish.”

Erin Siegal McIntyre is an assistant professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

This work is supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Harnisch Foundation, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, the UNC Office of the Provost, and the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.