SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Over 100,000)
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Under 100,000)
Breaking Event: Radio
Breaking Event: Television (Network/Top 40)
Breaking Event: Television (All other markets)
By Barton Gellman
Hot running story. Confusion. Picture shifting daily, hourly. I claim: here's our best chance to go deep.
Sometimes I think we make too much of the distinction between deadline and enterprise stories. When big news is breaking, of course we have to get it fast, get it right. But the most important opportunity of continuing coverage is to bring the reader inside an unfamiliar world.
Readers -- and editors -- are paying attention. On a running story we can count on their sustained interest. That is a scarce commodity. The best reporters think hard about using it well.
Every story has a setting and context that is foreign to most people in some way. That is obvious enough when reporting from overseas, but just as true at home. I have in mind the unspoken norms of the local precinct house, or the vendettas and alliances among minor political figures, or the spotty maintenance record at an industrial plant. Ordinarily a reader would not know or care to know these sorts of things. For continuing coverage, those may be just the details that make sense of events.
If we are lucky enough to hit a big story as experienced beat reporters, this is our chance to ask: What is it I have come to understand about the way the place really works, and how can I use this moment to convey that to readers? If we are new to the subject, we ask, like any reader, what the hell is going on. And then we find a thread and pull at it.
I've had it both ways. Mayor Marion Barry's drug trial came when I had two years in the D.C. courthouse and the confidence to lay out subtexts of the trial. For the Persian Gulf War, I was so green as Pentagon correspondent that I barely knew an M-16 from an F-16. But my head was full of questions about how a modern army goes about war, and I knew readers wanted the answers more than any time since Vietnam.
Consider the April collision between the Chinese fighter and the U.S. reconnaissance plane. My colleague John Pomfret, whose command of China's languages and political culture is unrivaled in any newsroom today, gave us two weeks of what I can only call breaking context: the succession of the struggle in Beijing, the army's resentments, the country's complex attitudes about hi tech. Our readers might not have known they cared about these details, but they damn well wanted to know why the Chinese were holding our air crew. John did what the best continuing coverage always does. He told them.
Barton Gellman is a special projects reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post. He won the 1998 Sigma Delta Chi award for non-deadline reporting in the newspaper category.
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Newspaper/Wire Service: Circ Over 100,000
Judy L. Thomas, The Kansas City (Mo.) Star, AIDS in the Priesthood
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There are some things you just don't talk about. But when those "things" are deaths, and talking about them might prevent more deaths, it's time to break the silence.
Acting on a single tip, Kansas City Star reporter Judy L. Thomas launched a six-year examination of AIDS and the Catholic priesthood. She documented more than 300 priests who had died of AIDS and hundreds more who were living with the disease. The paper's editor, Mark Zieman, said it was a "sensitive and explosive" issue. Thomas agreed.
"Because of the sensitivity of this issue, getting people to talk was one of the most difficult aspects of the series," said Thomas.
The paper went to great lengths to respect the privacy of those involved. No priests' names were used without permission. Even so, in some cases, it took months before sources would open up and talk about the issues.
Work on the series included a poll of priests about their views of AIDS and the Catholic Church's response to the disease; profiles of priests struggling with AIDS; the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality, AIDS and celibacy; and stories of other religious denominations wrestling with the same issues. Thomas also talked with those who counseled priests living with AIDS.
When the series ran, after all Thomas' years of work, many readers and religious leaders responded with anger, and there were attempts to discredit the story.
"The series earned the newspaper few friends and was attacked from the pulpit and in the Catholic press. The Star deserves the commendation of the profession for its courageous and fearless determination to tell this story in spite of powerful pressures not to," said the contest judges.
The paper faced criticism from many sides. Thomas said they received 3,000 calls and e-mails in response to the original series; half were positive, half negative. But that criticism didn't end the discussion.
"We never once considered giving up on the story," said Thomas. "We knew it was one that needed to be told."
The paper was overwhelmed with the media response to the series. Virtually every major media market in the United States picked up the story, and some outlets carried it around the world. In January 2001, ABC featured the series on "20/20." The paper had to turn down interview requests because "there simply wasn't enough time to handle all of them," said Thomas.
The original series ran in January 2000, and the Star published a follow-up report in November of that year that included reaction to the first series. Overcoming resistance from state health officials, Zieman said the follow-up also included an exhaustive records search revealing that the problem of AIDS in the priesthood was greater than originally thought.
To verify the alarming statistics, the paper sought advice from the Center for Disease Control and had the deans of two major journalism schools review the documentation of all deaths to confirm their accuracy. The follow-up report also discussed how the problem is being examined on different levels in the Catholic Church.
Thomas said the project's main accomplishment was "to raise awareness and spark dialogue about the human tragedy of AIDS in the priesthood. The story also prompted much discussion at religious conferences and in the religious press. The series established two important points: That hundreds of priests have died of AIDS and hundreds more are living with the disease, and that the church was aware of the problem but had done little to deal with it in the seminaries."
Today, Zieman says there are signs that the Catholic Church is listening, but that "change is slow, thoughtful and thoroughly debated, particularly in areas that challenge church teachings and leadership."
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Newspaper/Wire Service: Circ Under 100,000
Darrin Mortenson, William Brown, Jason Robbins and J. Lowe Davis, The Virgin Islands Daily News, Vieques: In Whose Defense? At Whose Expense?
RIGHT: Seated from left: J. Lowe Davis, Darrin Mortenson; standing, from left, Jason Robbins, William Brown
Who's right? Who's wrong?
For nearly 60 years, the U.S. Navy bombarded the 21-mile-long Caribbean island of Vieques, using more than half of it as a bombing range. The Navy took the land during World War II and never gave it back. Thousands of island residents were forced to relocate, and today, only 9,800 residents remain, fighting desperately to save their homeland.
The Virgin Islands Daily News knew the situation on the island had reached a critical point and assigned the story to Hispanic affairs reporter Darrin Mortenson. Mortenson traveled to Vieques, lived with its residents, and reported on the struggle there in a five-part series titled, "In Whose Defense? At Whose Expense?"
Mortenson spent weeks at a time in the island's civilian zones. He interviewed protesters and visited battlefields. He faced personal danger traveling on a fishing boat with protesters; physical hardship as he slept on the ground in camps on the bombing range and technological challenges as he sometimes had to climb a steep, rocky hill to dictate his stories by cell phone.
Mortenson provided historical perspective on the struggle between the islanders and the Navy and documented the stories of protests and accidents involving civilians. He revealed the impact of the bombings on the island's natural resources, its economy and its people.
But Mortenson also shared the Navy's side of the story. Despite denied FOIA requests, forcing the paper to reorganize the project plan, no one thought of giving up. Mortenson talked with naval officers about the importance of live training exercises and explained why alternative sites had failed to meet naval requirements.
Executive editor J. Lowe Davis said the staff found most gratifying, "the degree to which all sides of this issue trust our reporting and consider it fair and objective and the outpouring of gratitude from the people of Vieques for the information our coverage provided."
Judges said the series was "a comprehensive, well-written and eminently readable report that served readers well and stands as a model for news organizations large and small."
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Ron Fournier, The Associated Press, Election 2000
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Journalists sometimes win awards by producing one great work, that single spark of brilliance that stands out from the rest of their coverage and everyone else's.
For Associated Press political reporter Ron Fournier, that "single spark" turned into a fire that carried through his coverage of the long 2000 presidential campaign. He consistently wrote exceptional stories on the campaign, covering all aspects from the political strategies of the candidates to the bizarre events of the Florida recount. He took the time to talk with voters and non-voters to gather a rough pulse of public concerns.
Fournier was on top and, in many cases, ahead of the trends that would dictate the direction of the election. He wrote about the impact Ralph Nader would have on voters that might otherwise have voted for Gore, and he predicted days before the election that Bush had a small electoral lead in a race that was far too close to call.
Journalists and editors recognized Fournier's contributions to election coverage. Howard Kurtz, media critic for The Washington Post, said Fournier "may be the most important political reporter in the country." His accounts of campaign developments appeared in newspapers across the country.
"I'm in awe of what AP is doing," said Joe Hepp, editor of the San Bernadino (Calif.) Sun, in December. "But this poor guy Ron Fournier? When is the last time he had a day off?"
The judges agreed. "Ron Fournier's coverage of the 2000 presidential race was a quintessential example of shoe-leather journalism," they wrote. "On the street, on the road, on the scene, Fournier showed the importance of working a beat from the bottom up, and the results were stories that kept him and his readers on top of an amazing campaign."
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Ian Johnson, The Wall Street Journal, A Death in China
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Chen Zixiu lived in China and followed the religious practices of Falun Gong. She died last year in a Chinese jail, taken into custody because of her religious practices. Fellow prisoners said she was tortured and killed by Chinese security officers.
Ian Johnson, a Beijing-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal, told the story of Chen and her death. His investigation into her death turned into a serious look at the challenges faced by contemporary China.
It was a story the Chinese government didn't want told, and Johnson was threatened, followed and detained by Communist police. He got creative. Every few days, he changed cell phones and pagers to avoid detection; he conducted interviews at night, double- and triple-sourcing his findings; he became adept at slipping away from tails and avoiding neighborhood patrols.
While writing the story, Johnson worried that U.S. readers might not even care about the topic. "After the first article, however, I got a flood of e-mails -- scores and scores of them -- from readers who wanted to know more about Ms. Chen and her situation," he said.
After his initial article, Johnson followed up with stories on the Falun Gong movement and its critics, the efforts of Chen's family to discover what really happened to their mother, and the reality that, while China had made progress, the country still relied heavily on old, brutal suppression techniques.
Johnson said it was gratifying to see the Chinese government have to answer to the United Nations for its treatment of prisoners in detention. He said the work was important because it illustrated how new changes in China were causing friction with old practices.
"Society is much more diverse and complicated," he said. "But the government relies on a crude, authoritarian system, one completely out of step with the times. This system can't last and is inherently instable."
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William Pitzer, JoAnne Miller, Tom Tozer and Gina Nania, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Inside the Hunley
One of the last people to see the H.L. Hunley was John Crosby, a sentry patrolling the bridge of the USS Housatonic. It was Feb. 17, 1864, and the long, dark object low in the waters off Charleston harbor was about to become the first submarine in history to sink a ship. The victim: the federal sloop Housatonic. The Hunley never returned to port, either. The Confederate sub, with its crew of nine, was lost at sea until divers located the surprisingly intact wreck in 1995.
The Hunley's failure to return created an enduring mystery as to the cause of its demise.
The submarine has been a local Charleston legend for 130 years and has been incorporated into the local history of the town, keeping its memory alive for the generations since the Civil War.
In January 2000, while on a research assignment, The Charlotte Observer's news graphics editor William Pitzer learned of a planned recovery expedition to raise the Hunley and its nine-member crew.
Obtaining archeological research of the Hunley's exterior and historians' sketches of how the interior might have been designed, Pitzer created a 3-D model of the submarine. He combined, for the first time, reference materials to the exterior and interior of the ship.
"We created a compelling graphic of a story with lots of historic and scientific significance that was an exclusive for readers ... telling the story of nine brave sailors and connecting our readers with the history and unique features of this tiny submarine," said Pitzer.
This "visual tour" explains the inner workings of the historic sub. Supplemental information on the Hunley's builders, its historic confrontation with the USS Housatonic and a roll call of the vessel's three crews rounds out the graphic.
Judges said The Hunley's story made this work stand out from the others and that "the journalistic ambition and consummate technical skills of the artist helped it to win."
"The work also reflects one of visual journalism's fundamental values," they wrote. "It takes us to a place we could not possibly go ourselves."
This is the third Sigma Delta Chi Award for Pitzer since 1995.
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Buzz Conover and Susan Gage, Florida Public Radio, Election 2000
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Everyone understood that last year's presidential election would be a close one, but no one was prepared for the post-election drama or how long it would take to name a winner.
The Florida Public Radio Network, based in Tallahassee, was in the thick of a 36-day election night, and during that time, news director Buzz Conover and senior reporter Susan Gage filed more than 100 stories for the network. Conover and Gage also provided live coverage of court cases, speeches and news conferences.
"It's hard to pinpoint what was the most difficult," said Gage. "Certainly the stress of the situation, with the world focused on your state and your city, and the constant changing nature of the story that forced us to work overtime and on the weekends in some instances made this a challenging story to cover. There was a lot of hurry up and wait. And sometimes the waiting was outside the state supreme court building for up to five hours with the temperature falling into the high 30s.
"This issue was the proverbial 24/7 for 36 days. And it was one of those stories that changed from hour to hour, making it a constant challenge to provide the latest and the most accurate information to our member stations, many of which have classical music format as opposed to an all-news programming schedule," she said.
Gage said that she was at times tempted by exhaustion and frustration to give up. But she explained why she could not let those feelings get the best of her.
"It was also exhilarating, exciting, challenging and one of the biggest stories I'd ever handled, and one of the most important for our state and nation," she said.
Conover said he, too, felt fatigued from covering this marathon story, but he never seriously questioned whether their time was well spent.
"I think lots of mornings when the alarm went off before 6 a.m. and I had only been in bed for 3 or 4 hours, the thought of giving it all up was a ... consideration," he said. "But seriously, no, I never wanted to drop the story. As reporters we get to witness history in some fashion being made every day, and this story will be more than a chapter or two in the history books ... . It was great being right in the middle of it. There was also the professional responsibility aspect. There was no way professionally we could drop the story our listeners were depending on us to pass along everything that was going on with the selection of the next president."
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David Boeri, Jack Harper, Gail Huff, Mary Saladna and Ray Smith, WCVB-TV, Needham, Mass., On the trail of Whitey Bulger and the FBI
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The news media has been called the fourth estate. It is described as a watchdog over government, a check of those working for the public interest. At its best, the media takes a closer look at what otherwise might be overlooked.
In his ongoing coverage of the relationship between mob boss Whitey Bulger and the FBI, lead reporter David Boeri and the WCVB-TV news team lived up to the expectation of the news media as a fervent watchdog over government. WCVB's stories have shown how FBI agents used Bulger's informant status to keep him from being prosecuted for several murders, and tips from informants in the bureau led to the murder of some of the people who posed a threat to Bulger.
Suspicions about the relationship between the FBI and Bulger have existed since Bulger disappeared to escape prosecution in 1995, but the trail picked up in 2000 when investigators discovered several secret burial sites that held the remains of Bulger's victims. WCVB began giving the story regular coverage, combining news updates with investigative coverage and interviews with the mob boss's victims.
Boeri followed the trail of investigators as far as Tulsa, Miami and the Mexican border as they searched for Bulger, who is still at large. He raised questions about the thoroughness of the FBI's investigation by going over their tracks and conducting his own investigation. Boeri went so far as to stake out former assassins who worked for Bulger to get them on camera.
The ongoing coverage that WCVB has given to the story of Bulger and the FBI has led to public outrage in Boston, and it pressured local law enforcement to conduct an honest and thorough investigation of Bulger's crimes and the corruption in the local FBI bureau. Congressional hearings have been planned to examine the relationship between the FBI and several of its informants, including Bulger.
Judges called the work a "superb effort" and said it was a comprehensive and well-written look at a challenging story. "A lot of work went into keeping on top of this story," they wrote. "All the bases were covered."
And, according to Boeri, his station has no intention of giving up on the story.
"I don't see our coverage ending until Whitey Bulger is brought back to Boston and justice is brought to him and to the police who helped make him the force he became," wrote Boeri. "Though I continue to do general assignment reporting, this could be a full-time gig until I retire (and I'm far too young for that)."
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News team, KECI-TV, Missoula, Mont., Montana Wildfires: Up in Flames
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RIGHT: Seated, from left: Jim Harmon, Gordon Stabler, Liza Brunk; standing, from left, Dan Foy, Ryan Loewen, Wade Muehlhof, Clayton Boe
Covering a natural disaster is difficult for any news organization, but an inexperienced newsroom staff multiplies the formidable task.
The KECI News Team is a young group, and no one but news director Jim Harmon had ever covered a forest fire. When the worst fire season in 50 years hit Montana, the small crew had to learn quickly.
"As a small market station, most of us do it all: shoot, write, edit, produce," said reporter Liza Brunk. "In this case, we had to do all that in rugged terrain areas we had never been. We had to learn a new language ... back burn and urban interface, along with jargon, became part of our daily vocabulary. We had to translate it for our viewers. We worked as much as 18 hours a day trying to be on top of each fire that broke out from the Wyoming border to the Canadian border."
As the fires spread, the staff organized into specific "beats" to deal with the huge amounts of information pouring in on a daily basis. They had to compete with major networks for viewers, but they also did custom live shots and interviews with larger stations or networks. On one occasion, the staff had to deal with equipment damaged by smoke and ash from the fires.
"We had many frustrations," said Harmon. "But, certainly no one wanted to quit. In fact, if anything, I had to hold reporters back. They wanted to put in 12 to 20 hour days. That would have been fine for a single, breaking news story. But this was going to be a marathon ... they had to pace themselves."
The station was an invaluable resource for residents who needed to know about evacuation notices and environmental hazards from the fire's smoke. Reporters developed a good working relationship with the Forest Service workers, and they have already been working to prepare for the 2001 fire season.
The judges were impressed with the staff's efforts in covering a story well beyond their resources.
"It's obvious the entrants knew and took very seriously the knowledge that their viewers relied on the information the KECI news team was providing to literally save their lives and safeguard their property," they wrote.
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Tim Connor, Camas Magazine, Secret Deal
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Even under normal circumstances, Tim Connor had a difficult assignment.
He was covering a story about a prominent Spokane family abusing their position and influence to pocket $10 million of taxpayers' money in a questionable parking garage deal. The family owned two of the major news outlets in town, and the story had been sufficiently hidden from public view. Government figures were reluctant to talk about it because of their own connections with the family.
It wasn't an easy story to report, and Connor faced even more difficulties. He worked for Camas Magazine, a start-up magazine that was using this investigation to kick off its publication. During the course of Connor's reporting, the magazine encountered funding problems -- derived in part from a dispute over control of the magazine's content -- that ultimately forced it to restructure and become an online publication.
"I have been in publishing for more than 25 years," said Larry Shook, co-publisher of the magazine, in his nomination letter. "I have never seen a reporter confronted with more stressful circumstances than those faced by Tim Connor in completing this assignment."
But Connor did manage to break the story, and, in a joint effort with local television station KXLY, he got the word out to Spokane residents about the abuses of the Cowles family.
Besides owning the daily Spokesman-Review and the NBC affiliate KHQ-TV, the Cowles had made a deal with the city to develop a parking garage downtown.
The garage came with the guarantee that it would make money, but Connor's investigation showed that in every month since it reopened in the fall of 1999 it has lost money, resulting from the structure of the deal itself. Connor's investigation also revealed that the Cowles had pressured appraisers into overvaluing the garage in a way that allowed the family to capture at least $10 million from the sale of the bonds. Betsy Cowles refuses to release figures showing how those funds were dispersed. But in a tape recorded interview with Connor she said her family could have spent that money to pay for improvements in their television station if they chose.
Besides appearing online, Connor's story was eventually published in book form (with an introduction, final chapter and epilogue added to the original series of stories).