SDX 2002 Awards Gallery
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Over 100,000)
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Under 100,000)
Television Reporting: Network/Top 25
Television Reporting: All other markets
Keep coverage relevant
By Buzz Conover
Investigative reporting is a state of mind. Its skepticism mixed with curiosity and tenacity. Its a keen sense of right and wrong. And its coolness in the face of intimidation.
Investigative reporters accept little at face value. What distinguishes their work more than anything else is a compulsion to sort out the truth for themselves.
The best investigative reporters I know project supreme confidence yet secretly struggle with insecurities. They are what philosopher William James calls sick souls those who dont find happiness easily because theyre so acutely aware of evil.
Its as though theyre driven to make things right, especially by exposing those who lie, cheat or abuse power.
Investigative stories are by definition difficult to do. They often involve coaxing frightened people to talk. They may start with a whistleblower. But often, its up to the reporter to persuade apprehensive people to take a chance by leaking or coming forward.
The most powerful question an investigative reporter can ask, according to Bob Woodward, is can you help me?
Behind every good investigative project are drawers full of documents. Tracking down documents is the sport of investigative reporting. The masters of it understand that the most critical fact in a story may come from the most unlikely place.
Investigative reporting is inefficient. Days or even weeks can be spent following a path that leads nowhere. Even the most tightly managed projects can take months.
With newspaper owners now demanding profit margins of 25 percent or more, investigative reporting is an obvious target for cuts. Two Ohio University professors studied three newspapers with a reputation for solid investigative reporting the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and discovered that each did far fewer investigative pieces in 1995 than they had done in 1980.
Investigative reporting is risky. Overreach or get it wrong and careers can be destroyed. Newspapers reputations recover slowly.
Investigative reporting is powerful. At its best, it can topple presidents, save innocent people wrongly convicted from execution and expose the most cynical forms of greed and abuse of power. It gives voice to those who have none.
Investigative reporting is journalism at its best.
David Heath is a reporter with The Seattle Times. He won the 2001 SDX Award for online investigative reporting.
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The Boston Globe, Coverage of sexual abuse by priests & its impact on the Roman Catholic Church
Coverage of sexual abuse by priests & its impact on the Roman Catholic Church
When The Boston Globe published a report in January 2002 that detailed the Boston archdioceses handling of Rev. John J. Geoghan a Catholic priest who was moved from parish to parish despite repeated claims that he sexually abused children the paper began an investigation that illuminated widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and ultimately led to important reforms.
The investigation began with an admission from Cardinal Bernard F. Law in a court document that he had been aware of Geoghans past charges of child molestation and still had reassigned him as parochial vicar to another church. As Globe reporters began investigating whether this was part of a larger problem in the church, they found that key court records in the case had been sealed. The paper began a legal battle to make the court papers public, citing an intense and legitimate public interest.
While that battle continued, reporters worked the story from other angles. Using a database created from the churchs own directory of priests, the paper investigated suspicious instances of priests being moved from one parish to another. They conducted interviews and looked at other court cases involving the archdiocese.
The first stories which focused on the case of Rev. Geoghan came out in early January 2002. They led to strong public outrage, and the Cardinal implemented a zero-tolerance policy toward priests facing charges of sexual abuse. Public pressure eventually forced him to cooperate with civil authorities and pass on the names of all priests who have been accused of such abuse.
The Globe won its court battle and continued its coverage. By the end of January 2002, the paper produced evidence of larger corruption in the Boston archdiocese: Over the past decade, the archdiocese had secretly settled claims of sexual abuse against at least 70 priests, wrote Globe Editor Martin Baron in his nomination letter. The Globe followed up with reports that detailed instance after instance in which the church had knowingly allowed abusive priests to stay on the job.
As the scope of the problems became public, American cardinals held an emergency meeting at the Vatican. The result of that meeting and of the Globes persistent following of this story was an overhaul in how American bishops should deal with clergy sex abuse.
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Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, Wash.
For years, the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., wrote about various legal violations by two Columbia Basin farmers. But last year, Mike Lee began to put all the individual violations together in an investigation that uncovered years of flagrant lawbreaking and abuse by the two farmers, brothers Mike and Spud Brown.
In a series titled Bitter Harvest, Lee spelled out the history of the Brown brothers disregard for state and federal laws and regulations. He found evidence of three deaths that had been linked to farming operations. The Brown farms were responsible for illegal water and air pollution, and Lee even found that company trucks some of them listed under different business names had collected dozens of traffic tickets in the past year.
The series illustrated that the Brown brothers had pretty much gotten away with all of their violations; state and federal regulators seemed either unable or unwilling to enforce the law, and the misdeeds went largely ignored.
Judges were impressed that Lee took the initiative to pull from past coverage of individual violations and compose the larger account. Without Lees effort, the community would have been left with stories about a fine here or a lawsuit there, they wrote. Instead, he strung together 15 years of history and documents into a well-written and smooth story. Judges, none of whom have any particular interest in agriculture, found it an enjoyable and informative read.
Judges also noted Lees use of people as sources, rather than relying almost exclusively on documents. The first story of the series opens with an account from a woman widowed by a Brown-related accident.
Often in investigative stories, writers tend to lean too heavily on documents, perhaps believing they hold more weight with readers, the judges wrote. However, in order to spur readers to care about a story, it is imperative that a writer relay how the story affects people. Lee did a fine job of incorporating both.
After the series appeared, there was a sense of public outrage that criminals were consistently getting away with violating the law. But the state Ecology Department, which is the lead regulatory agency over most of the Brown infractions, has yet to step up its enforcement efforts.
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Donald L. Barlett, James B. Steele, TIME magazine
When federal legislators passed the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the intent was to give native tribes the ability to generate their own source of income, rather than relying on government handouts.
Nearly 15 years after the passage of the act, TIME magazine explored the actual outcome of the poorly-written legislation. Outside investors not the tribes themselves were using loopholes in the act to reap most of the financial benefits. Instead of the money going to poor tribes, it was going to rich white or Asian investors.
The two-part series, written by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, pointed out that casinos on tribal reservations collectively brought in $12.7 billion in revenue last year, which would put them among the nations top 20 companies in terms of profitability. Despite the large economic impact of these casinos, they operated in relative secrecy and went largely unexamined until TIMEs series.
The fallout of the stories was quick and dramatic. Newspapers and columnists began to call for regulatory reform, and the state of California came out and opposed one of the proposed casinos outside San Francisco that was featured in one of the articles. In a letter to Interior Secretary Gail Norton, Representative Frank R. Wolf of Virginia wrote, This situation is truly a national disgrace.
Judges were impressed at the scope of the articles research and the clarity of the writing.
What makes this project worth the trouble is that it involves millions and millions of federal tax dollars that are not going to the people it is intended to help, wrote the judges. The piece is told as a story it has a plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. Its engaging and the authors did exhaustive work digging through piles of public records and conducting numerous interviews. A real gotcha.
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Steve Miller, WBBM Newsradio 780, Chicago
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A nine-part series by WBBM Newsradio 780 revealed stunning news: The 3,000 day care facilities in Cook County, Ill., were infested with criminals holding official day care licenses.
Reporting revealed licensees who were convicted of drug dealing, drug possession, arson, spousal and child battering, and even a case of endangering the life of a child. One day care operator was charged with the murder of a child left in her care. Other offenses included DUI, retail theft and fraud ripping off the Illinois Public Aid Department for tens of thousands of dollars.
WBBMs Steve Miller examined hundreds of day care licensees records in the course of the stations investigation. He learned that parents faced a daunting task in trying to get information on the caregivers from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Even though the DCFS compiles such data, it gives no help to parents wanting to know if a criminal is caring for their child.
Millers reports revealed different reactions from officials about the findings. A Cook County judge was incredulous that convicted criminals could legally obtain child care licenses. Other officials were more forgiving, saying criminals who had paid their debt to society should have a second chance.
After the series ran, the state legislature passed a bill that increased the qualifications to hold a day care license, and the governor is considering signing it. The need for better record sharing between state agencies and the counties is also being explored by officials.
The individual reports are tailored to fit the WBBM short report format, but judges said that didnt compromise the quality of the reporting.
They are cogent, to the point, well-written and informative, packed with data and make for interesting listening, the judges wrote. They are well-produced.
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Chris Henao, Mike T. Devlin, KHOU-TV, Houston
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DNA evidence and crime lab tests have become a staple of contemporary criminal trials, but the staff of KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas, discovered that this evidence is far from foolproof.
Houston is in a county that sentences more people to death than any other, and many of those convictions are based on evidence from the Houston Police Department crime lab. On a tip from a lawyer, KHOU began to investigate the validity of these findings. They found a history of serious errors and sloppy conclusions that sent innocent people to prison and sometimes even to death row.
The station took their findings to nationally known forensic scientists and experts to confirm the results. These experts called the errors egregious and said they showed repeated gross incompetence. In one case, an expert said the evidence was the equivalent of a scientific train wreck.
After KHOUs reports about the flaws in the HPD crime lab, the police department began its own internal audit. Two months after the first story aired, the HPD and the Harris County District Attorney announced that they had suspended all testing at the lab because of serious problems found in the audit. In addition, they announced that retesting would be done in at least 600 past and pending criminal cases.
Meanwhile, the KHOU staff continued to investigate specific cases. One case was the conviction of Josiah Sutton, who had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for rape after the labs DNA testing determined that his samples matched those from the rape kit. KHOU reporters took copies of the lab reports to outside experts, who determined that the tests were flawed. Reporters also talked to jurors, who said they wouldnt have voted to convict had it not been for the DNA evidence.
The HPD again decided to retest the evidence, and their findings concurred with those of KHOUs experts: The DNA from the rape kit did not match Suttons. The same judge who had presided over his trial declared that Sutton should be released from prison, and his lawyer credited the staff of KHOU for his clients freedom. Unfortunately, the system would not have gotten him this result, Suttons lawyer said. He got this result because Channel 11 (KHOU) got involved.
Still, KHOU continues to investigate. They have now turned their attention to the district attorneys office, which has pushed for the destruction of DNA evidence almost immediately after a conviction even when an appeal has been filed.
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Hagit Limor, Gary Hughes, Paul Grundy, Michael Bendic and Bob Morford, WCPO-TV, Cincinnati, The Secret Report
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They are known as the “Big Four” in Cincinnati: Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Kroger and Cincinnati Bell. In 1991, there was a very secretive report, known as the Iameter Report, funded by the town’s four biggest corporate giants. The city’s health care situation would never be the same.
The study was meant to uncover the best health care for the companies’ employees at the cheapest rates. It concluded that the companies needed to cut their insurance costs to maximize profit margins.
The threat of losing thousands of potential patients employed by the “Big Four” forced hospitals and doctors in the area to negotiate deals that dramatically reduced their pay. Doctors learned they could earn much more by moving just hours away to towns such as Columbus, Cleveland or Indianapolis.
What you may have noticed as a longer wait for an appointment ... boils down to this:
(Dr. Larkin:) We can’t get doctors to come to this area.
Wait a minute. Isn’t Cincinnati supposed to be a cutting edge medical town? How can it be we’re losing doctors and unable to recruit more?
The I-Team may have found one answer in a report the public never saw - the Iameter Report, commissioned in 1992 by four of our biggest corporations in Cincinnati.
(Hagit:) “That’s a lot of clout.”
(Dimario:) “Yea, there probably was a little weight-shifting there.”
Many of Cincinnati’s top doctors began taking their practices elsewhere, trimming hours or just retiring early. Groups of physicians cannot recruit new medical school graduates to the area due to the lower salaries available. Some patients may wait months for appointments, even the wealthy.
Orthopedic specialist Dr. Dan Funk says insurance companies paid more than $5,000 for him to fix a knee ligament, known as the ACL, in 1990. Today, they’re paying $1,360 at most. But what is disturbing to physicians and surgeons in the Cincinnati area is that insurers pay more for the exact same operation in Pittsburgh, Columbus or Indianapolis.
“If you call a mass exodus of physicians a model, that’s certainly one way to put it,” said Dr. Mort Bertram.
Bertram is only one example of doctors leaving the greater Cincinnati area for greener pastures. He attended U.C. Medical School, married a Cincinnati native and planned to practice there for much of his life. But Cincinnati’s “Top Doctor” for total joint replacement in 1998 blames his move to Naples, Fla., on the Iameter Report.
“I’ll come right out and say that,” he said. “I think that that’s basically where it started. And what has happened in Cincinnati is some of your best and brightest young physicians have left Cincinnati.”
WCPO’s I-Team spent two years on its investigation. They committed an unprecedented 18 minutes of airtime over two 30-minute newscasts. To illustrate the gravity of their findings, the station then replayed the entire 18 minutes over another two 30-minute shows. Other affiliates in the area steered away from the topic, fearing loss of advertising dollars from such large corporations.
“We were particularly impressed by how fair, how even-handed the report was,” wrote the judges. “The station respected the highest standards of journalism.”
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Kevin Sullivan & Mary Jordan, The Washington Post, Mexico: Outside the Law
Though democratic elections and economic growth are quickly modernizing Mexico, much of the country still exists in a state of lawlessness. Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, a husband-and-wife team that serve as co-bureau chiefs in Mexico City for The Washington Post, reported on how the absence of consistent law enforcement has played out in small towns and villages across the country.
In one account, Kevin Sullivan describes a scene from a small mountain village in southwestern Mexico. A man had killed his cousin in a drunken brawl, and the townsfolk debated how to handle the crime. After some deliberation, they decided on his punishment he would be buried alive alongside his dead cousin. Sullivan recounted the dramatic event from the memories of the mans mother, who, along with his 14-year-old son, watched as members of the town threw dirt in his grave until he was completely buried.
This extreme instance is an example of what Jordan and Sullivan found all across Mexico where there was no system of justice, citizens were making it up as they went.
Their system is crippled by unequal justice for the rich and the poor, by a near total lack of justice for children and for women, by persistent tolerance of torture as a means of solving crime and by police complicity in kidnappings, said Sullivan. These glaring deficiencies in the justice system are the hardest on the poor and vulnerable.
While researching their stories, Jordan and Sullivan ran into many dangers themselves. Sullivan was threatened by an armed man, and both were warned to stop asking tough and therefore dangerous questions during the course of their reporting.
Despite the dangers, the couples reporting has made a difference in Mexico. Crime and justice has become one of the biggest public issues in the country, and several specific stories have led to government action.
We hope that by shining a light on these problems we have helped to make things a little better for people who have no one else to advocate for them. That is the best result a journalist can hope for, said Sullivan. Mexico is a great country; its people deserve a great justice system.
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ESPN.com, Blood on the Rings
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Before the United States went to war with Iraq, the American public started hearing stories of the Iraqi regimes treatment of its citizens. Accounts of torture, harassment, and murder made headlines across the country.
Tom Farrey, a reporter with ESPN.com, heard those reports and contacted a Boston-based group that was collecting documents detailing torture of Iraqi citizens. Farrey was looking for evidence that Iraqi athletes had been tortured, and the group put him in touch with a member of the Iraqi opposition who could help him.
Farrey uncovered stories of athletes who had been members of Iraqi soccer, volleyball, weightlifting and boxing teams who reported being tortured for losing competitions. Some said they were tortured under orders of Uday Hussein, son of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and former president of the nations Olympic committee. All of them recalled living in fear of punishment if they failed to perform in their respective sports. Some of the accounts took place in the Iraqi Olympic headquarters, which athletes said also functioned as a clearing house for illegal trade in stolen goods.
Farrey used translators extensively in his reporting, and he was careful to have his sources review the material to ensure accuracy. Many of the sources feared for their own safety or the safety of family members still in Iraq; in many cases, their interviews with Farrey marked the first time theyd spoken about the torture they had endured.
ESPNs reporting led to an investigation by the International Olympic Committee, which determined that the claims of torture were credible and decided to dissolve the Iraqi Olympic Committee.