A behind-the-scenes look at how BI reporters Nicole Einbinder and Rebecca Ungarino exposed a toxic party culture at Wall Street firm BTIG

Samantha Lee/Business Insider

Nicole Einbinder and Rebecca Ungarino

  • Business Insider is taking you behind the scenes of our best stories with the series "The Inside Story."
  • This week, BI deputy executive editor Olivia Oran spoke to reporters Nicole Einbinder and Rebecca Ungarino whose investigation into Wall Street broker BTIG revealed a toxic party culture that was stuck in the '80s.
  • Einbinder and Ungarino discuss how they got sources to open up about allegations of cultural problems, racist behavior and sexual banter at the firm and why bad behavior has been tolerated on Wall Street even post #MeToo.
Olivia Oran: How did you stumble upon this story?

Nicole Einbinder:
I actually stumbled upon this story while reporting on cultural problems at Bloomberg. I was tipped off by a former employee who said there were similar issues occurring at BTIG. Rebecca and I decided to team up to investigate because of her expertise covering finance and Wall Street. We were particularly intrigued after learning that the EEOC was "conducting an investigation into sexual harassment allegations" at the firm. Sources who were contacted by the agency were never told about the status of the investigation, and we wanted to try and figure out what was going on.

Rebecca Ungarino:
I was interested to hear Nicole received that tip, because while reporting out other stories, I'd heard something similar from a source last year. At the time, it wasn't really something I pursued. But our instincts were to pursue the tip and find out what was going on, and I was eager to dive in together.

Oran: The BTIG investigation took 6 months to report out. Can you describe your reporting process? Why was this one especially tough to get across the finish line?

Einbinder:
One of the biggest challenges was that our reporting for this story coincided with coronavirus. At the onset of the pandemic, we both had to prioritize other reporting related to COVID-19 that, subsequently, led to delays for this piece. As we mention in the article, throughout the course of this reporting, we also received multiple letters from a law firm on behalf of BTIG that accused us of making "false and damaging written and oral statements" while seeking information about BTIG, and threatening to sue Business Insider for defamation and potentially damaging the firm's relationships with clients. Due to that, we needed to be as buttoned up as we could before hitting publish.

Oran: Many of the sources in your story are anonymous employees who detail allegations of cultural problems, racist behavior and sexual banter at the firm. Was it difficult to get people to talk to you about these issues? How did you ultimately convince them?

Ungarino:
Yes, it's definitely difficult to get people to open up and be candid about their experiences at a company, especially if they were negative in nature and fear their name being attached to a sensitive story. I ran into that hurdle when reporting on the firm Wedbush Securities last year. But ultimately we were successful in reaching some people who were ready to speak about their experiences at BTIG, and said we would treat their identities with the utmost discretion and care. We also tried to keep people updated on the process throughout, so I think that built up some trust as well.

Einbinder:
Absolutely agree with Rebecca on this one. This was a sensitive story where sources were apprehensive about speaking to us due to the fear of retaliation. Whenever dealing with a source, I always begin the conversation by letting them know that the ball is in their court, and that we will only discuss what is most comfortable for them. I also emphasize that we will protect them at all costs if they do request anonymity. Those assurances build trust with people, particularly while discussing challenging topics like this. Pointing to past reporting I've done on similar topics, like my investigation into the culture at Bloomberg, can also be helpful in letting sources know we understand this process and have done this work before with results.

Oran: What's the biggest thing you learned from your reporting process?

Ungarino:
I learned a lot from Nicole, who has more investigative reporting experience than I have, and is always pushing for new information in a really great, dogged way. And from our editor John Cook's masterful work on the story and the way our newsroom's counsel guided the process, I learned more about the extensive work it takes to bring together a deeply reported story about a firm.

Oran: What gets you excited about investigative stories like this one?

Einbinder:
I'm extremely grateful to be on the investigations desk at BI where we only focus on projects like this. Investigative journalism is an absolute thrill; we have the opportunity to bring new information into the world with the power to potentially create change and expose wrongdoing. I love the process of requesting and going through documents, creating relationships with sources, and ultimately writing stories that can educate the public about various issues. Since my job is project-based, rather than focused on a particular beat, I'm always looking into something new and learning about a slew of different topics. It's a ton of fun to be constantly learning new things on the job, while also working with beat reporters — like Rebecca — who have that topical experience I lack!

Ungarino: I definitely learned a lot from Nicole and John in reporting out a story like this given their investigations focus: the word "thrill" is one I'd use, too. The chance to dig into one issue, company, or person is thrilling. Having the time and resources to become experts and present a story that can inform readers and uncover new details is what gets me most excited about a project like this.

Oran: I think many readers (myself included!) were surprised to learn that cultural problems at Wall Street firms persisted even post #MeToo. Why do you think some firms still haven't cleaned up their acts?

Ungarino:
Firms' cultures are so deeply ingrained and take years and years to shift, even in small ways. I think that since the #MeToo era really came about in the fall of 2017, there's been a sea change in how companies themselves handle employees' allegations of misconduct and complaints about feeling mistreated. But big legacy financial services firms, whether that's banks, brokerages, or other companies, are slow to change in many ways, and that includes improving a wider culture that straight white men built a long time ago.

Einbinder:
Right. While there has definitely been progress in the wake of #MeToo, change doesn't just happen overnight. Journalists, employees, attorneys, advocates and others are doing critical work right now to raise attention to cultural problems at a myriad of firms, far beyond just Wall Street. Let's not forget the stellar reporting other BI reporters have produced in recent weeks about companies like Bon Appétit, Pinterest, and CrossFit. I am hopeful change is beginning to happen as we as a society start to recognize these systemic cultural problems. But, as Rebecca said, it can take years for those shifts to really take place and become engrained in a company's culture.

Oran: What's been your most rewarding experience as a journalist?

Ungarino:
I feel most rewarded when people I've spoken with — or who reach out and introduce themselves following a story's publication — express that they felt heard in the story and appreciated that. Or that we were spot-on with a description in our writing, or that something really resonated with them.

Even if a person is not named, which can be the case with sensitive stories, there can be a sense of relief and gratitude that a story was told while their identity is protected and the trust they have with us is preserved. If a story can also spur positive change, that makes the whole reporting process worthwhile. But hearing directly from readers who appreciated a story is most rewarding, for me.

Einbinder:
My most rewarding experience as a journalist was probably when I traveled to Indonesia in the fall of 2018 with a Pulitzer travel fellowship to explore rising anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the country. My reporting partner and I spent hours with a young lesbian couple who despite absolutely unthinkable odds — a forced marriage, sexual and physical violence, threats from family and friends, and even an exorcism to cure them of the evil spirits that they were told made them gay — were determined to stay together in the country they love. The reporting was challenging, particularly due to language and cultural barriers, but I was extremely proud to help share their story in a narrative feature for The Nation magazine. They were beyond inspiring and I feel immensely grateful that they trusted us with their story.

Like Rebecca mentioned, it is rewarding to tell stories that can hopefully spur positive change. Investigative journalism is so powerful in that it can shine a light on wrongdoing and raise attention to the voices that matter most. It is an honor to talk to sources about their experiences, and it means a lot that they place their trust in us as we work to share those experiences with the world.

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YOU CAN READ THE FULL STORY HERE: Former employees say BTIG, a Wall Street firm backed by Goldman Sachs and Blackstone, had a toxic party culture that was stuck in the '80s

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