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Sunshine Award winners announced for contributions to open government


Matthew Kent, SPJ Program Coordinator, 317-920-4788, mkent@spj.org
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, zberg@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is giving three Sunshine Awards this year to R. Jeffrey Smith and the Center for Public Integrity; The Center for Public Integrity, USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic; and Christina Jewett from Kaiser Health News.

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.

R. Jeffrey Smith and the Center for Public Integrity

Over a three-month period in 2019, the Center for Public Integrity undertook an aggressive effort to obtain access to critical documents related to President Donald Trump’s decision to halt aid to Ukraine.

The principal three stories — written by National Security Editor R. Jeffrey Smith and published on Dec. 13, Dec. 21 and Jan. 2 — revealed first that the Trump administration was hiding critical information about the potential legality of the President’s holdup of Ukraine aid, second that officials at the Pentagon were worried that the holdup violated a spending law, and third that the holdup ignited increasingly strident protests by Pentagon officials who said it was illegal and that it should have been disclosed to Congress.

This series of stories was possible because of targeted Freedom of Information Act requests and an aggressive, shrewd, litigation strategy. It was R. Jeffrey Smith’s idea to pursue this effort, and he worked hand in hand with the Center’s legal counsel and research editor Peter Smith to carry it out.

The Center for Public Integrity, USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic

“Copy, Paste, Legislate” represents the first attempt to unearth and put a number to the bills debated in statehouses nationwide that are substantially copied from those pushed by special interests over — and cast considerable amounts of sunlight onto a decidedly in-the-dark process.

This project began with two parallel, but separate, investigations into this phenomenon. The first, started by reporters at the Arizona Republic and USA TODAY, involved identifying how successful groups have been in pushing legislation in statehouses. The second approach, started by reporters at the Center for Public Integrity, involved analyzing legislation itself to organically identify suspected model bills that had not been previously reported on.

As part of the project, local newsrooms were able to identify and interview major sponsors of model legislation and identified key issues that resonated in their state. As a result, people in various states called for legislation to require more transparency about the origin of bill language. Reporters and researchers requested access to our data to do their own research. Legislators across the country repeatedly have found themselves compelled to defend their sponsorship of model bills.

The public facing tool able to identify model legislation being introduced across all 50 states will give the project a longer lifespan, too. Updated weekly, it will allow local reporters and members of the public to hold their representatives accountable for unveiling the sources of the legislation they champion.

Christina Jewett from Kaiser Health News

The Kaiser Health News series “Hidden Harm” revealed that the Federal Drug Administration granted special reporting “exemptions” that were so obscure that safety experts, doctors and even a recent FDA commissioner were not aware they existed.

Senior Correspondent with the KHN enterprise team Christina Jewett discovered that, for nearly 20 years, the FDA was striking secret deals with medical device makers to keep millions of malfunction and injury reports out of that public repository known as MAUDE — and instead letting them submit reports to a secret database, hidden from public view. Piecing the story of these exemptions together took months of digging and incredible persistence from Jewett.

The investigation immediately triggered an uproar in the medical device industry — and at the FDA. Citing KHN’s work, device-safety experts called on the FDA to open up the hidden reports of harm. Researchers started to comb through the exposed data to expand their studies of harm and malfunctions tied to various devices. The end result of Jewett’s trailblazing work: On June 21, the FDA published its entire hidden database online, revealing 5.7 million device-related injuries or malfunctions for the first time.

The winners will be recognized virtually during SPJ 2020 Journalism Conference.

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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