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SPJ gives two 2015 Ethics in Journalism Awards to outstanding journalists


Abbi Martzall, SPJ Awards Coordinator, (317) 920-4791, amartzall@spj.org
Rachel Semple, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 920-4785, rsemple@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is bestowing two 2015 Ethics in Journalism Awards to outstanding journalists. One goes to former Las Vegas Review-Journal journalists and former Bristol Press (Conn.) reporter Steve Majerus-Collins. The other is awarded to Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza of The Associated Press

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

Las Vegas Review-Journal journalists and Steve Majerus-Collins
The staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal was told by a representative of their mysterious new owner that the Review-Journal had been purchased by a hidden entity. The journalists were told: “Don’t worry about who they are. Just do your jobs.”

Upon hearing the news, the team of journalists uncovered and reported the truth: Billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, known for his fortune and powerful connections to political and business interests, particularly gaming, had bought the paper, under the cover of a shell company.

Despite obfuscation and obstacles from their new bosses, the team persevered and didn't back down. In a show of integrity and solidarity a few days into the mystery, Review-Journal staffers tweeted links to the SPJ Code of Ethics and their support for one of its principles: "Be Accountable and Transparent: Journalists should abide by the same high standards they expect of others."

Shortly before the sale became final, the old ownership — over protests by newsroom management —ordered Review-Journal reporters to leave their beats for two weeks to "observe" local judges and share their findings. The journalists later found out that this was not a journalistic mission, but to scope out judges who could potentially handle cases involving Adelson.

Review-Journal journalists didn't waver in their exposé and related coverage. But their commitment to truth, transparency and ethics was costly. They lost their jobs or left because of pressure. Reporters James DeHaven and Eric Hartley had already announced intentions to leave the Review-Journal when they were put on the story. However, the rest of the team – editor Mike Hengel, deputy editor James Wright, reporters Jennifer Robison and Howard Stutz, and columnist John L. Smith - all resigned. Editorial page editor Glenn Cook remained at the newspaper where he is currently managing editor.

The Bristol Press, where Majerus-Collins formerly worked, is linked to the Review-Journal through News + Media Capital Group LLC, the shell company for Adelson.

After Majerus-Collins' Connecticut newspaper published a lengthy story about the judge-review project under a suspicious byline, Majerus-Collins, who co-founded the nonprofit Youth Journalism International in 1994, quit his job out of disbelief that his employer had played a role in unethical dealings happening in Las Vegas. He had no other job lined up, leaving him and his wife in financial limbo with two children in college.

But Majerus-Collins spoke out forcefully on Facebook, saying "I have learned with horror that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper – a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system – and then stuck his own fake byline on it. In sum, the owner of my paper is guilty of journalistic misconduct of epic proportions."

A nomination by Andy Schotz for the former Review-Journal journalists and Majerus-Collins said they "demonstrated powerfully what it looks like when ethics in journalism stands up to financial clout."

Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza
Mason, McDowell and Mendoza uncovered a slave island in Southeast Asia and traced the fish back to American grocery stores and restaurants in their "Seafood From Slaves” project, which was also awarded a Sigma Delta Chi Foundation award this year. The long-term impacts of their investigative reporting include dozens jailed, freedom for more than 2,000 slaves and the closing of a loophole that had allowed imports of slave-produced goods to the United States.

The trio was nominated by Associated Press International Enterprise Editor Mary Rajkumar, who said, “The journalists were under enormous pressure to publish and, at times, risked their own personal safety to get the story out. This team of reporters took on the Thai seafood industry, engaged governments, corporations and consumers — and most significantly brought enslaved men back to their families.”

The project was sparked by a simple question: Where was the outrage? Horrific labor abuses in Thailand’s $7 billion seafood industry had long been an open secret with media, Rajkumar wrote. But no one had interviewed the captive slaves, some who had been away from home for decades. No one had traced the fish they caught to America’s dinner tables, grocery stores and restaurants. But this investigative reporting team spent a tenacious year discovering men locked in a cage, calling for help; and tracing the slave caught seafood to some of America’s most popular brands and stores, making it impossible for companies to deny culpability.

The impact has been profound: 12 people have been jailed. Ships have been seized. Businesses have been shut down. There have been U.S. Congressional hearings, lawsuits, and earlier this year, President Barack Obama ended a loophole that had been allowing imports of slave-produced goods. Some of the world’s largest companies have promised reforms, and consumers worldwide were forced to confront the cruelties of slavery in the 21st Century, Rajkumar continued.

It was an unusual project that took two years of reporting and facing a unique set of ethical dilemmas and decisions, she said. For example, decisions where the need for information and documentation had to be balanced with the need for safety and privacy, especially for the youngest of slave laborers, some of whom were only 15 years old. They were under tremendous pressure to publish the story, but what made the reporters proud is that they were able to free men, women and children from slavery without causing harm to anyone in the process.

A complete list of previous winners is available online.

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 Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


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