El Paso Matters, Insider, ProPublica, Jonathan Guyer named SPJ Sunshine Award winners
Lou Harry, SPJ Manager of Publications and Awards, 317-920-4786, firstname.lastname@example.org
Zoë Berg, SPJ Communications Specialist, 317-920-4785, email@example.com
This release was updated to include more information.
INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has named four recipients – El Paso Matters, Insider, ProPublica and Jonathan Guyer — as winners of its annual Sunshine Award.
A judging panel, composed of members of the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee and Board of Directors, bestow these awards each year to individuals and organizations for their notable contributions to open government.
El Paso Matters
In 2018, freelance journalist Robert Moore filed a series of Freedom of Information Act queries with the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services pertaining to immigration issues at the U.S.-Mexico border. The agencies did not respond to the requests.
Moore, who was in the process of establishing El Paso Matters, a nonprofit news site, filed a lawsuit in federal court in November 2019. Moore pursued the lawsuit without the support of a major news organization. El Paso attorneys Chris Benoit and Lynn Coyle agreed to file the suit and accept only the fees that could be recovered from the federal government.
In January 2021, a federal judge ordered DHS and HHS to provide all the requested documents within a few months. When Moore, Benoit and Coyle determined that the redactions in the documents were inappropriate, they prepared for a September 2021 trial, only for the government to lift the redactions that were being challenged the eve before the trial was to start. The government also agreed to pay Moore’s legal fees.
The documents produced two major stories, published in 2021, about the performance of the U.S. border enforcement system. One brought to light a military exercise near a Hispanic neighborhood on Election Day 2018 designed to get media attention. The other focused on the decision by the Trump Administration justifying its policy of turning back asylum seekers due to unavailable detention spaces at ports of entry, when spaces were routinely available.
The investigative reporting project “Conflicted Congress” considered the enforcement of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012, or STOCK Act, designed to boost Congressional ethical standards and transparency surrounding a member’s personal finances and investments. Over the course of five months, over 9,000 financial disclosure statements were collected and analyzed by over 40 reporters, editors, data journalists and researchers.
The project found that 59 members of Congress and 182 senior congressional staff members violated the Act in recent months. It also found that 75 lawmakers held stocks in either Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson and Johnson or all three during 2020. These stocks were bought or sold during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic by members of Congress.
The project also rated members of Congress on how they complied with conflict of interest laws, avoided conflicts and rated their commitments to transparency. This was done through a searchable and sortable database that could be used by the public and others in the media. Since Insider’s reporting was released, calls were made by various politicians to institute a congressional ban on stock trading – a move that has garnered bipartisan support and calls for action by congressional leadership. Separately, some members of Congress have voluntarily stopped trading stocks.
The reporting has since been picked up by local and national media, including The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Albany Times Union.
Reporter Neil Bedi began reporting on defects surrounding the HeartWare Ventricular Assist Device after finding a pattern in the public data that looks at device malfunctions and product recalls held by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Bedi’s reporting found that the FDA had received thousands of reports of suspicious deaths and injuries linked to the device. Bedi worked through over 1,000 anonymous reports to identify deaths of patients resulting from device malfunctions.
In addition, in documents written by federal inspectors and obtained by ProPublica, the government knew about problems with the device’s manufacturer, and the government continued to pay for the device, even though the company, Medtronic, did not meet federal standards. The reporting exposed gaps in the government’s regulation of medical devices and showed the increased danger posed to vulnerable patients, who often have no means of recourse.
As Medtronic, by law, is shielded from lawsuits, Bedi and engagement reporters Maya Miller and Maryam Jameel reached out to current HeartWare patients through online communities and support groups. Patients who were interviewed could not replace the devices with alternative pumps due to the risks of the required open-heart surgery.
The reporting about the FDA’s data practices, combined with the stories from the patients, led to a Congressional inquiry from the House Oversight Committee and Medtronic reaching out to patients and offering expanded financial assistance to them.
Last year, The American Prospect’s Jonathan Guyer set out to expose how national security decision-making works in President Joe Biden’s inner circle with a laser focus on severely undercovered corporate backgrounds. Guyer published numerous articles on how strategic consultants were appointed as foreign-policy leaders.
Guyer analyzed hundreds of pages of government ethics filings, obtained leaked corporate documents, mined social-media posts and interviewed dozens of watchdogs, ethics experts and current and former officials to find the information to use in his reporting. His reporting revealed that most senior Biden foreign-policy officials held down jobs in think tanks, academia and as strategic consultants, but that they frequently concealed the much more lucrative private-sector jobs in press releases and nomination announcements.
To reach new audiences, Guyer hosted public panels and joined radio programs. On social media, he shared new findings from the latest documents published by the Office of Government Ethics.
Guyer’s sustained attention to ultra-connected firms had led to several resignations. In response to Guyer’s reporting in July 2020, then-Biden campaign adviser Tony Blinken withdrew as managing partner of the firm he co-founded, WestExec Advisors, and its related private equity firm, and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national-security adviser, left Macro Advisory Partners.
Winners will be honored during the President's Installation Banquet at MediaFest22, SPJ’s annual convention, in Washington, D.C., Oct. 29.
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