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Home > Publications > Quill > SDX Award Winners: Newspaper Public Service Circulation


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Monday, July 13, 2009
SDX Award Winners: Newspaper Public Service Circulation

The Columbus Dispatch and The Washington Times

By Jim Poyser

Public Service Circulation (Circulation 100,000+)

WINNER: THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

“Test of Convictions”

He started with a bowl of lobster bisque and worked his way down the menu at Mitchell’s Steakhouse.

Next up was filet mignon wrapped in bacon, a baked potato, french fries, corn and asparagus. Dessert was a big piece of cheesecake smothered in strawberries.

To complete his first meal outside prison walls in 25 years, Joseph R. Fears Jr. washed it down with a glass of red wine and a shot of cognac.

Fears, a 61-year-old Columbus man, was freed yesterday morning after a DNA test proved him innocent of a 1983 rape.

Mike Wagner, investigative projects reporter at The Columbus Dispatch, began to notice occasional daily news articles about inmate DNA testing. He wondered why seemingly so few inmates in Ohio had been granted such testing. Was there a way his newspaper could push for — perhaps even pay for — testing in deserving cases?

The Dispatch’s subsequent five-day series — which included the work of Wagner, reporter Geoff Dutton and photographer Shari Lewis, among others — “Test of Convictions” revealed that Ohio’s chain of evidence is broken. The series offered possible solutions and delivered one: free tests for 30 inmates. The Dispatch arranged for testing at a private lab and legal support from the Ohio Innocence Project, an unprecedented partnership to literally test the system.

The series revealed that prosecutors ignored court orders, judges ignored the law and authorities routinely lost evidence. Even before the series concluded, the governor of Ohio was calling for an overhaul of the system. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the state attorney general also called for reforms.

In a matter of weeks after “Test of Convictions” was published, more testing was under way than in the entire five-year history of Ohio’s inmate DNA testing program.

Judges called it “an impressive public service for the citizens of Ohio. It was a balanced approach that included the victims’ perspectives, and it will no doubt lead to even more changes.”

Said Mike Wagner: “This type of work is why most want to pursue this profession in the first place: the chance to make some piece of the world a better place to live. Helping free innocent men from prison is the kind of thing you dream of in J-school.”

More online: http://tinyurl.com/mb54wo

Public Service Circulation (Circulation Less Than 100,000)

WINNER: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

“Disposable Heroes”

The government is testing drugs with severe side effects like psychosis and suicidal behavior on hundreds of military veterans, using small cash payments to attract patients into medical experiments that often target distressed soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan ...

Judges note: “In a category filled with compelling, penetrating examples of public service journalism at its best, Audrey Hudson’s stories shined brightest of all. [Her] tenacious reporting documented how more than 200 veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder were enrolled in a medical experiment without adequate protections.”

James Elliott thought his recurring nightmares of exploding bombs, dogs eating corpses, a child’s head blown off its body and other war horrors from his Iraq tour had ended in 2004 when he returned to his home in Silver Spring. The Army veteran sniper was earning high grades in college and got engaged to be married. His post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had disappeared.

He even signed up for a Veterans Affairs experiment to kick his habit of nearly three packs of cigarettes a day using the drug Chantix, and was succeeding. But after two weeks on the drug, his night terrors returned with a vengeance. … Night after night, Mr. Elliott violently thrashed ... shouting for air strikes, replaying the horror of watching friends bleed to death.

John Solomon, executive editor of The Washington Times, said the impact of Hudson’s work is far-reaching. “The expose prompted congressional hearings in July and an internal investigation by the Veterans Affairs Department. The VA secretary publicly praised the Times’ work for bringing to light shortcomings in his agency’s medical experiments and personally took the lead in enacting changes.”

Hudson said: “It was very traumatic for many of the people in these articles to tell their stories, to open up old and new wounds. Their trust in me was humbling.” She added: “The health of James Elliott, the focal point of the report, continues to deteriorate, and he has been diagnosed with brain damage.”

More online: http://tinyurl.com/4xcd5a

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