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Home > Publications > Quill > Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners - Magazines


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Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Sigma Delta Chi Awards Winners - Magazines

By Scott Leadingham

Click here for introduction to the awards and a menu of all categories.

Magazine Writing (National Circulation)

Winner: Sheri Fink, ProPublica with The New York Times Magazine

“The Deadly Choices at Memorial”

The smell of death was overpowering the moment a relief worker cracked open one of the hospital chapel’s wooden doors. Inside, more than a dozen bodies lay motionless on low cots and on the ground, shrouded in white sheets. Here, a wisp of gray hair peeked out. There, a knee was flung akimbo. A pallid hand reached across a blue gown.

Thirteen days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, rescuers in the flooded city discovered 45 decomposing bodies in the Memorial Medical Center’s chapel and hallways. After three medical professionals were accused of second-degree murder, the story went from human tragedy and flood disaster to criminal inquiry.

Sheri Fink, a journalist and medical doctor, sought to answer the obvious yet somewhat buried question: What happened?

For 2½ years, Fink researched and wrote what would become one of the most highly regarded magazine pieces of 2009, also winning a Pulitzer Prize and National Magazine Award. Fink says that in reporting: “Eyewitnesses were reluctant to talk. Many key documents were under seal. And there was an abiding sense among many in New Orleans that it was time to stop thinking about Katrina.”

But the age-old trait of journalists — persistence — paid off. The story showed that many more patients than previously thought were given sedatives and later died after a long-awaited rescue effort was under way. Fink showed that some doctors sped up patient deaths and then defended their decisions.

Judges note: “This article represents the best in magazine writing. Relentless, thorough reporting followed by writing that yielded a spellbinding narrative, this piece reveals with passion and courage one of the most compelling episodes of the Katrina story. At the same time, it raises the critical moral and ethical questions that often emerge from tragic events by conveying the ambiguity over choices made in a thought-provoking way.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXMagazine1

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Magazine Writing (Regional/Local Circulation)

Winner: Tony Rehagen, Indianapolis Monthly

“Free Man”

It’s a reality all too common — and increasingly reported — in the U.S. judicial system: Person incarcerated for decades exonerated by DNA testing. But often not as common is the story after the initial jubilation of release. What happens to this former convicted felon? Did he find a job? Has his life moved on? Is he truly a free man?

Tony Rehagen, in his Indianapolis Monthly story, asked those questions about David Scott, released after 23 years of wrongful incarceration. As Rehagen showed, life as a free man wasn’t immediately easier than the structured life of an inmate that began as a teenager:

Sitting here, drinking his sister’s coffee, David feels like a burden, as useless and helpless as a child — which, in many ways, he is. He lost the years between 17 and 40 — the years when a boy leaves home, finds work, becomes whatever sort of man he is going to be. Without those years, it is hard for David to know who to be. All he has are nightmares, visions of the unimaginable, mental scars of a young adulthood in hell. Things he can¹t speak of, that keep him up nights. Reasons why he refuses to be touched, not even by family, not even a hug.

To cope, David clings to the happier moments of his childhood, the only memories he cares to keep. He’ll share them with anyone who will listen. The result is a boy trapped in the beat-up body of a 40-something ex-con who has no idea who he is or where he belongs. And right now, all he wants is his mother.


Being wrongfully convicted, a man might want to talk to whoever will listen. But Rehagen says getting Scott to talk was a high hurdle: “After 23 years of wrongful imprisonment, the last thing he wanted to do was rehash those painful memories.”

Judges note: “Expertly paced, seamlessly written, it tells the story of a man who could’ve been forgotten, yet Tony Rehagen brings it devastatingly to life. It’s the kind of article that won’t let you go, even after you’ve finished the last word.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXMagazine2

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Public Service in Magazine Journalism (National Circulation)

Winner: Staff, Mother Jones

“Climate Countdown”

Mother Jones, which calls itself “[a] magazine of news, ideas and ideals,” put forth dedicated and far-reaching climate change reporting to as wide an audience as possible. In submitting its entry, Mother Jones told judges that climate coverage “has been hampered not only by disinformation put out by entrenched interests, but by the structural failings of journalism.”

Contributors traveled to Tuvalu, Brazil and the Alaskan backcountry, among other locations, for an in-depth and comprehensive package leading up to the December 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen.

One story outlined in stark detail the issues facing Pacific Island nations:

It’s a bright, balmy Sunday afternoon and I’m driving through the western outskirts of Auckland, New Zealand, the kind of place you never see on a postcard. No majestic mountains, no improbably green pastures — just a bland tangle of shopping malls and suburbia. I follow a dead-end street, past a rubber plant, a roofing company, a drainage service and a plastics manufacturer, until I reach a white building behind a chain-link fence. Inside is a kernel of a nation within a nation — a sneak preview of what a climate change exodus looks like.

This is the Tuvalu Christian Church, the heart of a migrant community from what may be the first country to be rendered unlivable by global warming. Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest nation on Earth. … Tuvalu’s total land area is just 16 square miles, of which the highest point stands 16 feet above the waterline. … Around one-fifth of the 12,000-some inhabitants have already left, most bound for New Zealand, where the Tuvaluan community has nearly tripled since 1996.


Not only did the package prove useful to print and Web readers, its roots helped shape collaborations with other organizations. Out of this project came Climate Desk, a multi-platform resource for outlets including the Atlantic, Slate, Wired and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXMagazine3

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Public Service in Magazine Journalism (Regional/Local Circulation)

Winner: Sarah Karp & John Myers, Catalyst Chicago

“Reaching Black Boys”

In 2007, while embedded at Marshall High School in Chicago to report on a district initiative to improve low-performing schools, reporter Sarah Karp noticed an eyebrow-raising trend: young black men suspended on a near daily basis. That trend prompted a deeper look at discipline in Chicago Public Schools, driven by data that showed racial and gender disparities in school suspension and expulsion. Karp and Myers uncovered an alarming statistic: 60 percent of the 775 students suspended in 2007-08 were black males, who comprise only 22 percent of the district’s enrollment.

From the report:

While districts across the country report student discipline data in slightly different ways, the analysis of 2008 data shows that CPS has one of the highest rates of suspension among big-city school districts — putting students at higher risk of failing courses and dropping out because of the strong correlation, borne out by research, between school attendance, grades and graduation.

What was the problem? Socio-economics? Home life? Gangs? Perhaps, but what about influence — or a possible lack thereof — at school? Using Freedom of Information Act requests, Catalyst obtained racial and gender composition data of the Chicago teaching force. Black male teachers were in noticeable decline. The potential positive influence for at-risk black males was literally going away.

Judges note: “This is a meticulously researched, beautifully written report and a superb example of true public service journalism that can change lives. The staff devoted the time, energy and expertise necessary to do the thorough job that the subject demands. The quantitative and qualitative research speaks volumes — and it spoke to the community in ways that prompted action.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXMagazine4

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Magazine Investigative Reporting (National Circulation)

Winner: David Grann, The New Yorker

“Trial By Fire”

Among social issues with the power to ignite powerful emotion, the death penalty ranks near the top. Beyond any doubt, has an innocent person ever been put to death in the contemporary U.S. penal system?

David Grann puts forth an unabashedly compelling argument for how the state of Texas possibly did just that to Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. Grann’s eight-month investigation tracked down sources and witnesses not examined during a trial that found Willingham guilty of murdering his three children by arson.

Grann wrote:

The defense had tried to find a fire expert to counter Vasquez and Fogg’s testimony, but the one they contacted concurred with the prosecution. Ultimately, the defense presented only one witness to the jury: the Willinghams’ babysitter, who said she could not believe that Willingham could have killed his children. (Dunn told me that Willingham had wanted to testify, but Martin and Dunn thought that he would make a bad witness.) The trial ended after two days. …

The jury was out for barely an hour before returning with a unanimous guilty verdict. As Vasquez put it, “The fire does not lie.”

This report and resulting follow-up investigations and editorials from various outlets cast serious doubts out the validity of some arson science and jailhouse informants used in criminal prosecutions. Though the impact has been far-reaching, Grann himself notes personal growth in the course of his research: “I had not previously written much about the judicial system, and the case had a profound impact on my understanding of how human error and systemic problems in the legal system can lead to potentially devastating consequences.”

Judges note: “[This story’s] clarity and urgency go to the core of the American system of justice and expose the rot within. Kudos to the New Yorker, which still gives space for such detailed, important explorations.”

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXMagazine5

_____________________

Magazine Investigative Reporting (Regional/Local Circulation)

Winner: Cynthia Barnett, Florida Trend

“Watchdogs on a Leash”

Journalists are often called watchdogs. Governments, too, have their own watchdogs, such as a police department’s internal affairs or agency’s inspector general. The press, fortunately, has a constitutional amendment. Internal watchdogs may serve at the whim of the very people they investigate.

In “Watchdogs on a Leash” Cynthia Barnett showed how four inspectors general of Florida state agencies had been removed or forced to resign by agency heads. The inspectors said they were fired not for cause but, more generally, for simply doing their jobs.

Barnett wrote:

Florida created its Inspector General Act in 1994 to ensure independent oversight in 31 state agencies, five water management districts and the state’s public universities. Florida’s inspectors general are supposed to “detect and deter fraud, waste and abuse.”

But the law put the watchdogs under the supervision of the politically appointed secretaries whose agencies the inspectors are supposed to monitor. The structure makes the job tricky at best. “Let’s face it — no one likes people turning over rocks in their own back yard,” says John Moriarty, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where an independent board is responsible for hiring both agency secretaries and inspectors general. “You’ve got to have independence to do this work.”

Barnett’s reporting showed an obvious, glaring oversight in the law, which was meant to provide greater accountability and, ultimately, citizen trust. As a direct result, the Florida legislature considered a bill in 2010 meant to correct these problems and allow inspectors general to be removed only for “good cause.”

The bill died in committee.

More online: tinyurl.com/SDXMagazine6

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