By Katie Quinlisk
Follow columnist Katie Quinlisk as she sheds light on Fordham’s female history, one woman’s experience at a time.
On Nov. 3, 1972, The Fordham Ram ran an investigative piece by FCRH ’75 sophomore Loretta Tofani titled, “Morality Twisting to the Trends.” Tofani surveyed campus-wide sexual behavior and examined how student sex culture was influenced by Catholic views on sexuality as endorsed by university policy. Tofani broached taboo topics, asking students about premarital sex, oral sex, birth control, homosexuality and masturbation. Her findings? Fordham’s sex culture was surprisingly progressive for being only a few years past the days of bed checks and curfews.
Tofani’s story was bold, even for 1972, and it was this daring sense of investigative reporting that would eventually earn her a Pulitzer Prize 11 short years later. But before she won one of the industry’s most coveted awards, Tofani was The Fordham Ram’s Editor-in-Chief where she introduced the publication’s opinion section, a graduate from Fordham in 1975 and a recipient of a master’s in journalism from the University of California Berkeley.
As a metropolitan staff reporter for The Washington Post in 1982, Tofani was working on a story on Prince George’s County Detention Center in a suburban Maryland jail, when she became shocked by rampant—and largely uninvestigated—rape charges among prisoners. This shock led Tofani into an exhaustive investigation into a pattern of gang rape within the jail in which violent criminals frequently victimized non-violent, minor offense or misdemeanor offenders.
With little intervening effort being made by the jail’s guards, the incidents had flown under the radar. It was not until Tofani openly spoke with the jail’s victims, perpetrators, medical professionals and guards that a pattern came to light. Tofani published her investigation in a three-part series in The Washington Post months after her first visit to the Maryland jail. Her story, titled “Rape in the county jail: Prince George’s hidden horror,” earned Tofani a Pulitzer Prize for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting in 1983.
After her article in The Washington Post, Tofani relocated to Japan in 1983, where she completed her Fulbright fellowship. She returned to The Post before moving to The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was named the publication’s Beijing correspondent. Tofani served as The Inquirer’s Beijing correspondent from 1992-1996, after which she returned to Philadelphia as a staff writer.
In 2001, The Philadelphia Inquirer suffered a series of budget cuts, and Tofani accepted a buyout. She and her husband moved to Utah, where Tofani took a temporary break from journalism. Tofani and her husband opened a nostalgic Asian furniture store and soon became importers of Chinese goods. As an importer, Tofani became curious about the Chinese factories where her products were being manufactured, and it was said curiosity that brought her back to journalism with a trip to China in 2003.
Tofani traveled to Dongguan to visit one of the furniture factories that produced her store’s goods. Once again, she was shocked this time by the uncontrolled and unregulated use of toxic chemicals in production, and left the factory barely able to catch her breath. The experience left Tofani reeling.
Tofani dove in head first. She closed her store and spoke with Chinese workers who had suffered from occupational hazards like lung cancer and amputations, American importers, Chinese factory owners and even consumers of products whose production had caused Chinese deaths in factories. Ultimately, Tofani synthesized “American Imports, Chinese Deaths,” a ruthless investigation of how the heavy American import demand for cheap goods threatens the lives of Chinese factory employees through toxic chemical poison. Her work and travel was funded by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Dick Goldensohn Fund for International Reporting and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the series was published in The Salt Lake Tribune in 2007. It was soon picked up by CNN and PBS NewsHour, the “San Jose Mercury News,” “Los Angeles Daily News” and the “Newark Star-Ledger.”
Tofani’s investigation has triggered concrete change. Legislators in Washington D.C. have added clauses to Chinese trade agreements demanding workers’ rights to join free trade unions to ensure safe working conditions, and the United States is attempting to impose higher import taxes on Chinese goods to pressure China into improving labor health standards. Her work has likely saved thousands of Chinese factory workers from chemical poisoning and has undoubtedly impacted the ways in which American importers interact with Chinese exporters. The story also earned Tofani another Pulitzer nomination in 2007.
Loretta Tofani still lives in Utah with her family. The investigative muscles she flexed as a staff writer and eventual Editor-in-Chief of The Fordham Ram have carried her throughout her career. With over 25 years of journalistic experience, Tofani has worked to buck dangerous whispers. She has repeatedly shattered the quiet and asked the tough questions: in Maryland’s Prince George’s County Detention Center, in the factories of Dongguan, China and even in Fordham students’ bedrooms back in 1972.