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St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ProPublica earn SPJ Ethics in Journalism Awards


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9/22/2022


CONTACT:
Lou Harry, SPJ Manager of Publications and Awards, 317-920-4786, lharry@spj.org
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Specialist, 317-920-4785, zberg@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists is bestowing its Ethics in Journalism Award on two reporters – Hannah Dreyfus of ProPublica and Josh Renaud of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dreyfus is being recognized for the project “The Liberty Way,” examining how Liberty University responds to students who report cases of rape. Renaud is being recognized for reporting on potential exposures of social security numbers of Missouri teachers, through the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s web site.

This award honors journalists or news organizations that perform in an outstanding ethical manner demonstrating the ideals of the SPJ Code of Ethics.

Dreyfus’ reporting for ProPublica centered on the culture of Liberty University, the largest private evangelical university in Virginia, and how it responded to students’ accusations of rape and sexual assault. University officials required students to sign paperwork saying they violated “The Liberty Way,” the moral code by the school that forbids fraternizing with the opposite sex. Further, students interviewed by university investigators told Dreyfus that they twisted testimony to smear women who reported cases of rape.

The university did not reply to Dreyfus’ inquiries, while she corroborated the stories that she heard through more than 50 interviews with former students and staffers at Liberty, as well as former and current police officers at the university. In addition, Dreyfus examined school, medical and police records, as well as methodical collections of photo evidence.

In the letter nominating Dreyfus’ reporting, Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, said she met “the immeasurable challenge” of gaining and maintaining the trust of sources during the fact-checking process, and embraced unpredictability through reporting sensitive and trauma-ridden subject matter, as sources considered whether or not to share their stories publicly.

Engelberg said ProPublica was diligent to minimize harm to sources through interviews in a trauma-informed manner, respecting the sources’ boundaries and featuring evidence that had since been removed from the file by officials, who deemed it to be too explicit.

“We understood the gravity of the situation, not just in terms of what was on the line for our publication and the integrity of our reporting, but what a misstep it could mean for the national movement towards accountability for rape on campus,” Engelberg wrote.

Once the story was published, Senators called on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Liberty, and the university’s board voted to open a review of the school office that was in charge of handling complaints of discrimination and abuse.

Renaud’s reporting in the Post-Dispatch centered on the possibility that social security numbers of teachers may have been exposed on the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website when members of the public looked up the credentials of teachers, counselors and school administrators. Renaud notified state officials in fall 2021 of the problem and said he would not publish a story on the subject until state officials took action.

After assurance from state officials that the site was secure, the story ran on Oct. 14 in the Post-Dispatch and its website the evening prior. The same day, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced a criminal investigation of both Renaud and the paper. The state education department called Renaud a “hacker” and Parson said the individual who alerted the Department of the problem was trying to “embarrass the state and sell headlines for their news outlet.”

Parson’s political action committee launched a fundraising video highlighting his criticism, suggesting Renaud was “digging around” in personal data about teachers, while the PAC praised Parson for standing up to “the state’s fake news factory.” Emails seen by the Post-Dispatch originally showed that the agency planned to thank Renaud for highlighting the problem instead of labelling him as a “hacker.”

Yet, the problem was not just exclusive to teacher certifications. Renaud's initial report noted that as far back as 2015, Missouri’s state auditor raised concerns about education-related data practices at the Department, specifically that students’ social security numbers and other personally identifiable information was being stored in the Missouri Student Information System. Additional reporting found that the state’s computer systems were so outdated that officials were worried that no one would know how to work with the technology once the programmers familiar with this technology retired, and that the governor and legislature have barely invested in updating the infrastructure.

Parson ordered the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s digital forensic unit to investigate. In February, seven weeks after the Patrol submitted their report, the Cole County, Missouri, prosecutor announced that Renaud and the Post-Dispatch would not face charges.

Marcia Koenig, former interim editor of the Post-Dispatch, nominated Renaud “for his solid instincts in recognizing a problem, his professionalism in reporting on it and his perseverance through months of political attack.”

Dreyfus and Renaud will be honored during the President's Installation Banquet at MediaFest22, SPJ’s annual convention, in Washington, D.C., Oct. 29.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund or give to the SPJ Foundation.

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