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Sunshine Award winners announced for contributions to open government


Matthew Kent, Program Coordinator, 317-920-4788,
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785,

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is giving three Sunshine Awards this year to Jessica Huseman; Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza and for a project by Center for Investigative Journalism, Quartz and the Associated Press. A judging panel, composed of SPJ Board of Directors and Freedom of Information Committee members, bestows the award each year to individuals and organizations for their notable contributions to open government.

Jessica Huseman
Huseman is a reporter at ProPublica and adjunct assistant professor of journalism at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Through her reporting and teaching, Huseman shows dedication to investigative reporting and open records.

Senior Editor for ProPublica Joe Sexton said Huseman “was the beating heart at the center of the Electionland project,” which was an innovative, large-scale collaborative reporting effort that covered voting access, cybersecurity and election integrity in the 2018 midterm elections. She trained dozens of reporters in the Electionland coalition in getting documents from election administrators and more than 60 newsrooms in writing about election administration, which included extensive instruction into what documents and data are available to reporters and how best to get it.

As part of her classroom curriculum, Huseman has developed instruction on Freedom of Information Law and the Freedom of Information Act and requires each of her students to send a records request at the start of the semester, which they track and appeal as a class. Her students have collectively sent more than 150 records requests during this process, and she’s shared this methodology and instruction with about 40 college journalism instructors across the country.

Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press
Burke and Mendoza, investigative journalists for the Associated Press, took a deeper look into the real-life impacts of the Trump administration’s immigration policies in 2018. The two reporters filed public record act requests, combed through hundreds of pages of court records, knocked on strangers’ doors to ask difficult questions, followed trails of friends and family through social media and traveled to Central America, the Midwest and the U.S.-Mexico border in pursuit of the truth.

Among their reporting was a story about babies and toddlers who were separated from their parents at the border that went viral and was retweeted more than 150,000 times. The morning after, President Donald Trump signed an executive order officially ending family separations. Their story on the adoption of a pre-school age girl caused lawmakers from Michigan to Washington to begin asking for details and talking about steps to make a change. These are just two examples of their detailed reporting on immigration issues.

Through asserting their First Amendment rights, these reporters produced vital reports for the public about vulnerable migrant children and their families. Through source reporting and records searches, they found data and documents that elucidated and quantified federal actions at a time when the government would not discuss its plans, or the cost to taxpayers.

CPI, Quartz and the Associated Press
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI), Quartz and the Associated Press teamed up in the wake of Hurricane Maria to investigate the number of deaths caused by the hurricane. The organizations co-published a database and website, both in English and Spanish, which is the most extensive record, both in size and detail, of individuals whose deaths are associated with the hurricane, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

In the weeks after the storm, the government insisted that only a few dozen people had died, yet reporting on the ground by CPI suggested hundreds had perished. The three organizations surveyed the public online and verified the survey deaths by matching the victims’ names with government death records that CPI eventually obtained through a lawsuit and more than 300 phone interviews with victims’ relatives.

Their project fills a void left by the government’s inaccurate record. To this day, it has released the names of only 64 victims, though it now admits many more died, while CPI, Quartz and the AP’s reporting uncovered hundreds of other victims.

The recipients will be recognized at the SPJ President’s Installation Banquet at Excellence in Journalism 2019 in San Antonio Sept. 5-7.

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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