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Sunshine Award winners announced for contributions to open government


Lou Harry, SPJ Manager of Publications and Awards, 317-920-4786, lharry@spj.org
Ashlynn Neumeyer, Communications Coordinator, 317-361-4133, aneumeyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS— The Society of Professional Journalists has named three recipients for this year’s Sunshine Award: THE CITY, Documenting COVID-19 project and ProPublica.

A judging panel, composed of SPJ Board of Directors and Freedom of Information Committee members, bestows these awards each year to individuals and organizations for their notable contributions to open government.


Around the time of ProPublica’s record gathering, THE CITY began filing New York City Freedom of Information Law requests to the Civilian Complaint Review Board seeking misconduct records that had been hidden from the public.

When THE CITY became aware that police unions were preparing to file a lawsuit to stop the flow of these records, it requested all complaint reports on officers with track records of accusations.

Because THE CITY moved quickly, it was able to use the complaint reports to create a more detailed portrait of police misconduct after the lawsuit was filed that immediately shut down further release of additional records. However, as mentioned previously, the records are once again allowed to be released thanks in large part to these journalists’ efforts.

The story, “The Complaint Files the NYPD Doesn’t Want You to See,” co-published by ProPublica, WNYC/Gothamist and The Marshall Project, shares information found in the complaints conveying pain, anger and frustration about alleged misuse of power by those whose duty is to serve and protect.

Documenting COVID-19 project

Through thousands of public records requests, the Documenting COVID-19 project compiled more than 275 document sets across 48 states and territories, including internal emails, memoranda and health metrics from local and state governments — specifically health departments, school districts and governors’ offices.

The project, led by journalist Derek Kravitz and funded through a grant by Columbia University's Brown Institute for Media Innovation and other news and academic groups, collaborated with more than 50 newsrooms on 85 different investigative stories in 2020 and 2021, focusing on six different subject areas: the impact of the virus on food-processing and meatpacking plants and migrant farms; the virus’ spread in schools and colleges; data collected by states and shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the vaccine rollout; the use of predictive algorithms and tools in combating the virus; and county and state medical examiner data, exploring the disproportionate impacts of the virus on different communities across the United States.

The project used specific settings — often informed by examining current hot spots of the virus across the U.S. — and made targeted public records requests to the relevant city, county and state authorities to uncover how decisions were made.

Three stories resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of outbreak locations. Others provided changes including back pay for sickened meatpacking plant workers in Michigan and a new housing initiative in California for infected migrant farmworkers.

Multiple stories shed light on dangerous outcomes. The project uncovered authorities’ decisions on reopening Florida beaches in late April, the brushing off of a concern about Mardi Gras becoming a so-called "super spreader" event in New Orleans and more.

A months-long investigation with CalMatters and the Salinas Californian showed how a housing program started by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to isolate infected farmworkers and improve their disproportionately high mortality rates was a failure. Newsom’s office pledged to re-evaluate the program in response to the project’s story.


ProPublica Deputy Managing Editor Eric Umansky’s unprecedented examination of New York Police Department impunity explored how a veneer of civilian oversight belies the reality that America’s largest police force largely polices itself.

Umansky learned how, in one year, the city looked into nearly 3,000 allegations of violence and substantiated only 73, and that just nine officers suffered the most severe punishment: losing vacation days. Details were kept secret by a state law that barred the public from seeing police discipline records, until nationwide calls for reform after the killing of George Floyd got New York legislators to repeal the law.

Umansky was able to request and obtain a trove of records, and with that information, published a searchable database allowing the public an unprecedented window into one of the most opaque disciplinary systems in American policing. This database fueled ProPublica’s own stories, such as one about several high-ranking NYPD commanders who had been promoted again and again despite long records of serious civilian complaints.

As a result of ProPublica’s work, the New York City Council proposed sweeping reforms for the NYPD. The moves would strip the police commissioner of his current complete discretion over discipline. State legislators have also unveiled a bill to do the same. Another bill in the package would remove NYPD officers as the default responders to emergency calls related to mental health.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also called for the convening of a task force to address problems ProPublica exposed regarding prostitution, including allegations of misconduct, abuse, coercion and exploitation by the vice unit, and the fact that more than 90% of those arrested on the charge of patronizing a prostitute are nonwhite.

Winners will be recognized during the President’s Awards Dinner at the SPJ21 conference In September.

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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