The Backstory: Amelia Schonbek

Reporting on Sexual Misconduct in the Maritime Industry

In her newest investigation, “Against a Sea of Troubles,” produced in partnership with Mother Jones, reporter Amelia Schonbek looked into the toxic culture of misogyny and abuse in the maritime industry. Through FOIAs and conversations with women workers and advocates, Amelia found that sexual misconduct is rampant in the Merchant Marine, but the Coast Guard rarely receives reports of incidents. 

In this conversation, we talked to Amelia about how she familiarized herself with the inner workings of the Merchant Marine and the Coast Guard, how she developed her sources, and how reporting on sexual misconduct has changed over the past few years. 

Paco Alvarez: What initially inspired the investigation? 

Amelia Schonbek: So I was reporting on sexual misconduct more broadly and, for a piece I was doing, looking at sexual misconduct in jobs in industries that in the first wave of #MeToo coverage just hadn’t gotten a ton of attention. And I was talking to a lot of women who worked construction jobs. And in those conversations, they were sort of like, if you really want to see an industry that just hasn’t received a lot of attention and that has pretty rugged working conditions, you should look offshore at the Merchant Marine. And so I started kind of just searching around and really could find almost no information at that point about the industry in general and women’s place within it and their working conditions. And I just started getting really curious and that’s where it began. 

Alvarez: Your reporting is partially based on conversations with women who had experienced sexual abuse and harassment in the Merchant Marine. How did you develop your sources and how did you get them to trust you to tell their stories? 

Schonbek: So yeah, this was initially really, really hard. I mean, I think I did a few big waves of reporting. The first wave I did, I just did a ton of like LinkedIn, sort of like cold calling people based on sort of finding their in their LinkedIn profiles that they had attended the United States Merchant Marine Academy or other sort of training schools and just was send sending people a sort of like series of outreach emails saying that I really wanted to talk with them about sexual misconduct offshore. And almost nobody wrote back.

The offshore world is sort of unlike the military, which had kind of a moment where there was a lot of focus on sexual misconduct within that world. And like the Merchant Marine sort of evaded that. And even during the first wave of #MeToo coverage, there was very little openness within the industry. And so I think even when I started reporting, which was a few years after Me Too, a lot of people were really hesitant to say anything. And then I went back and did another big round of reporting again, like reaching out to people through LinkedIn. Also, there were at that point some Facebook groups that were gathering places for women offshore, and I started contacting people and said nothing about sexual misconduct specifically, but just said, I want to just talk with you about the experience of being a woman and working in this world. 

And then, like everybody actually wanted to talk. And it was really interesting because, I think this gets to what you asked about trust building, like, I just started talking to people really generally about their day to day experience. The Merchant Marine is unlike almost any other workplace in that you’re most of the time working sort of three or four months long rotations which are called hitches. And so you’re just on a boat kind of living with your coworkers. You have very little – I mean, this has changed a little bit with the Internet, but for a long time there was very little ability to communicate with people who were on land, so you were super isolated. And so everybody just wanted to talk about and process their day to day and kind of inevitably in those early conversations, I would talk to people for like 45 minutes or an hour and they would kind of have been saying like, I haven’t really experienced sexual misconduct, I haven’t really experienced harassment. But then they would tell me a story, like toward what I thought was going to be the end of a conversation that didn’t necessarily yield anything, that was really intense. And so it was almost like people were not necessarily able to say that they had experienced harassment or abuse, but then they would describe something that was very clearly harassment or abuse. 

And so I think the trust building happens just by sort of being willing to spend a lot of time on the phone with people. And I was really interested about their lives. And I think they sort of realized that I was genuinely curious. And, yeah, I think just leaving a lot of space – once I realized that the conversations were kind of often unfolding this way, I just left a lot of space for people to get comfortable and share whatever was going to come up. And I think with a lot of sources, I also talked to them, kind of kept going back a few times. And I think when people realize, oh, this person is actually interested in having some sort of ongoing conversation, they don’t just want what they want and then are going to dip. For the people who ended up being sort of more foundational parts of the reporting, I think that then those conversations, really got much, much deeper and more meaningful as we sort of continued these relationships. 

Alvarez: You kind of just touched upon this, but your investigation took place over a couple of years, right? 

Schonbek: Yeah, there was sort of a one pandemic imposed sabbatical in the midst of it. I had begun the reporting. And then when the pandemic happened, it sort of became clear that there were, you know, editors had a lot of priorities that were not long stories that had anything to do with anything else. And also, the pandemic really changed the lives of a lot of people working offshore. And for a while, their work was –  people were either stuck on ships, unable to travel because of the pandemic or stuck at home, unable to get to work. So, yeah, it just made sense to pause for a while while that was all unfolding. 

Alvarez: And so did your thinking or the focus of your reporting change or evolve during those years? 

Schonbek: Yeah, it definitely did. I think when I started working on the piece, I pitched it very much as a sort of like classic sexual misconduct investigation, in which I would kind of map the scope of the problem. And I think as the pandemic has unfolded, I think in every industry, we’ve been having these sort of realizations about the place that work has in our lives. And a lot of people have sort of been renegotiating what is meaningful, and the way that work fits into their life. And I think that that was happening also with people working offshore. I think that the pandemic really clarified a lot of things. 

And I think that it was really interesting because when I picked the reporting up, I guess probably in 2021, people were wanting to talk a lot more about broader issues of workplace abuse and toxicity. They were wanting to talk about like burnout and getting ground down and the way that the routine presence of misogyny and abuse in their lives was sort of forcing them out of this industry. 

I think the focus became more broadly beyond sort of like these individual experiences of misconduct into this larger attempt to understand how just being in really rugged, toxic environments pushes people out. And that really came into focus, when I’d already done the first couple of waves of reporting.

Alvarez: Was the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine something you were familiar with before you started reporting? 

Schonbek: Not at all. Yeah. I maybe had heard of the term Merchant Marine in relation to like the 1940s and the way that people had been mobilized during the World Wars. But yeah, I had no idea and had never even thought about who was taking the things that I like – every sort of thing that I touch pretty much in my day to day life. I never thought about how those things are moving from place to place. And now obviously, I just see it everywhere. You know, people like people tell me stories about like traveling on boats. And I have all these questions about who was driving them. So there’s been a big shift. 

Alvarez: How did you familiarize yourself with the agency and the maritime industry in general? 

Schonbek: So I was lucky in that there are a couple really, like, amazing women’s advocacy organizations, one being Women Offshore and the founder of that organization, a woman named Ally Cedeno, was an early source and somebody who just was extraordinarily generous in explaining and giving a lot of context. I mean, I think also the more I talked to people, the more I was kind of like asking and doing them questions to to make a patchwork of my knowledge. 

But then I read a lot of sort of like reports about the Merchant Marine. I read some trade magazines, for sure. There’s actually a surprising amount of like shipping and transportation trade media out there for the true nerds among us. I had periods where I was just having a lot of conversations with people and was really fascinated by just this world that I had never really spent time thinking about. And so I was just reading a lot online. 

The Coast Guard piece of it sort of came a little bit later when my reporting was less like on the ground experiences, and I started thinking a little bit more about the way that the industry is regulated and overseen. And so I had some sort of extensive and really helpful background conversations with people working in the Coast Guard that kind of really helped just demystify the interconnection between these two worlds. The Merchant Marine is kind of unlike any other institution in the country, and it just has this very strange place where it’s kind of connected to the military, but not really. And the Coast Guard is connected to it, but also in a way that isn’t so clear that – I think the uncertainty allows the Coast Guard to really pass the buck a lot of the time. And it is like the companies that run these ships are all private companies. They’re not actually state-run. So, yeah, kind of untangling how everything was connected just took a lot of reading and then just like asking people to explain things that still remained obscure. 

Alvarez: Speaking of the Coast Guard, did you face any pushback from the Coast Guard when you were trying to get information from the agency, either through interviews or through FOIA? 

Schonbek: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it took me weeks to even figure out how to FOIA for the information that I wanted, I would say. I spent a lot of time trying to reach the FOIA administrator and not getting any sort of like clear information about who I should even be directing my requests to. And it wasn’t clear that I’d sent it to the right person. The way that the Coast Guard is set up in relation to the Merchant Marine – there are two different and not necessarily related groups of people who investigate different levels of offenses. And sexual misconduct isn’t super clearly demarcated to one or the other, like one sort of oversight will look into certain types of offenses and another will look into more serious offenses, basically. And I wanted to know about both. 

So, yeah, I would say that there was a lot of just muddied waters that nobody seemed very eager to clarify as I was seeking out information. And then later when I had a, you know, a draft of the story that was on the verge of going to press and was trying to just sort of seek clarification and comment from the Coast Guard, not only on the FOIA. Well, also, I’ll say separately, the FOIA took an extraordinarily long amount of time to come back and then came back just in a somewhat disappointing form. But then down the line when I was here seeking comment, there was just a lot of time wastage and the promise of information but then not actually giving me any information. I wouldn’t say that they were particularly helpful or interested in the story sort of actually being published, which maybe is not surprising. 

Alvarez: And what sorts of other challenges did you encounter while you were reporting the investigation? 

Schonbek: You know, I think that a big challenge is just the culture offshore is really – I think I write in the piece like offshore work is one of the oldest industries, literally has been around for so very long. And there’s this kind of remarkable way in which like in some ways the culture has evolved. But in a lot of ways it’s just antiquated and there’s a lot of secrecy and there’s a lot of back channeling and gossip and obviously like the fear that is engendered by that type of culture. 

So I think that it was just challenging to build trust with people. And also then to ask people to go on the record in a context where I knew the risks that they were facing, and I knew that I was going to do my best to do right by them. But I also was not able to, of course, tell anyone that it wasn’t going to impact their job if they were to talk with me about their workplace conditions. So, yeah, I think that just kind of continuing to walk forward with the story and try to get people on the record in that context was super, super challenging and took just a lot of trust building and intentional work. And I think, you know, there were a number of situations where I did a lot of that work and it ended up being that the person just didn’t ultimately feel comfortable participating. And so, yeah, I think that that was super challenging. 

And I think also the old boysiness of it all was just kind of hard to cut through. I think all of the institutions that are major parts of offshore work, like the sort of like very old labor unions and the companies who employ people and all of the government bodies that are involved, including the Coast Guard, are sort of drawing people from this very small world where everyone knows one another and it can feel pretty clubby. And so, yeah, I think just trying to get in the middle of that and not just be dismissed, but actually get information out of people was challenging in an ongoing way. 

Alvarez: And my last question is kind of more like general to your reporting, but you’ve done several stories on the consequences or lack thereof of like the #MeToo era and sexual misconduct. How has reporting on sexual misconduct changed over the past few years? 

Schonbek: The thing that I really see a shift in is not necessarily the reporting itself, but the willingness of editors to publish these stories. And I’m really grateful to Type and to the editors I worked with for just being interested in this investigation. And I pitched it for over a year to editors who almost uniformly were really like encouraging and interested, but also were pretty clear in saying like, I won’t be able to sell this to my boss. So I think that the bar for publishing a story of sexual misconduct post-Me Too has actually gotten a lot higher. 

And I think too, something that I’ve really noticed is that sources have seen the backlash that those who’ve come before them have experienced, and I think are weighing whether or not to share their experiences in a way that’s really different than it was. There was obviously this huge tidal wave right after the Weinstein investigation came out of people wanting to speak and there were many, like, foundationally important things that came out of that moment. And also, like the backlash for people was really real. And so I think that finding, like finding sources who both want to share their experiences and also just feel confident doing that in this particular media and Internet world – it definitely feels really different than it did a few years ago. 

But it is just like amazing and moving and impressive to me in an ongoing way when people are willing to do that, knowing that it’s a deeply rugged experience a lot of the time. And even if it shifts things, which it doesn’t always, just the amount of scrutiny that will be coming to them in their lives is often really overwhelming. So, yeah, I’m grateful, deeply, deeply grateful that people are willing to do it. 

About the reporter