During a virtual ceremony at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the pair of veteran journalists accepted the $50,000 prize.
From debt bondage to outright slavery, they uncovered exploitation of an invisible workforce of millions of men, women and children from some of the poorest corners of Asia.
Gordon Stables, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, described the AP investigation as a “searing exposé.”
“You ensured the palm oil industry’s army of invisible workers had a voice and you made a significant difference by exposing those who were profiting from their suffering,” he said.
Mason and McDowell said building trust with sources was crucial in the reporting process.
The workers “trusted us with their stories and were willing to speak out at very great personal risk,” McDowell said. “It was scary for many of them.”
AP used U.S. Customs records and data to trace the oil harvested by workers to major brands such as Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s and PepsiCo, prompting the U.S. government to ban shipments from two major Malaysian palm oil producers.
Mason said palm oil is “found in just about everything.”
“It’s in your toothpaste. If you go and have a doughnut, it’s in your doughnut. It’s in your cereal, it’s in your coffee creamer. It’s in your soap, in your conditioner. It’s in the paint on your wall.”
Mason and McDowell are part of the AP team that won the 2016 Selden Ring Award for an investigation into the fishing industry in Southeast Asia that freed more than 2,000 slaves and traced the seafood they caught to supermarkets and pet food providers across the U.S.
The Selden Ring Award is presented by the Ring Foundation and USC Annenberg.