Goldsmith Award winner, finalists talk about their craft

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Top investigative journalists used databases, graphics, video, and good old-fashioned shoe leather to reveal slave labor, expose unfair arbitration practices, and detail police shootings and school funding flaws.

Winners and finalists discussed their reporting challenges during last week’s Goldsmith Awards ceremonies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The awards are administered by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Associated Press series uncovering the use of slave labor in the Thai seafood industry won the top $25,000 award. Robin McDowell, a member of the four-member team that spent 18 months exposing abusive practices in the AP’s “Seafood from Slaves,” faced the problem of getting victims to talk on the record. “We had to honor them but not to use their names, or they’d be killed,” she said. “How do we hold on to the power of the story with anonymous sources?”

The Guardian US in “The Counted” and The Washington Post in “Fatal Shooting by Police” tackled a similar subject: underreported fatal shootings by police.

The Post’s Kimberly Kindy called the job “ugly and messy”—and unprecedented. “Nobody had done it before,” she said. “There was no model. Going into this, we had no notion of how hard it was going to be to cover every fatal shooting in real time.… The information didn’t rush out. We had to keep going back to get more details.”

She said The Guardian’s competitive efforts helped the Post because “it made it harder for authorities to look the other way.”

Jon Swaine, part of the five-member Guardian team whose findings—along with the Post’s—led the FBI and the Department of Justice to revise their system for counting killings by police, said his biggest challenge was the small staff. Like the Post reporters, they worked nights and weekends keeping up with the constant flow of reports. The Guardian will combine reporting and verified crowd-sourced information to continue building a database of the killings.

Lisa Song, one of the four-member InsideClimate News team that disclosed that Exxon documented but buried climate change research in “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” said they initially thought it would be impossible to prove the cover-up.

“The main challenge was finding people willing to talk,” she said, but with a lot of “shoe leather reporting,” including door-to-door visits, they induced ex-employees to tell their stories. And finally, they unearthed thousands of internal memos that revealed what and when Exxon knew.

Michael LaForgia said the three-person Tampa Bay Times team that produced “Failure Factories” had to overcome editors’ and educators’ mindset that student underachievement was “inevitable, ignoring the basic question—why does this condition exist?”

The Times’s 18-month investigation used an extensive database along with graphics and video—as well as traditional storytelling methods—to show how resegregation transformed five once-average schools into the state’s worst.

For “Beware the Fine Print,” Jessica Silver-Greenberg and her two New York Times colleagues faced the challenge of knowing the arcane subject of arbitration clauses as well as the high-priced lawyers who used them to prevent people from suing credit card companies and retailers.

“A huge challenge was [detailing] ‘How did they do it?’” she said. To gain corporate lawyers’ trust, she added, the reporters needed to know the law. Then, she said, they could flatter attorneys by saying, “‘I understand the genius of what you did.’ That helped us gain their respect One lawyer was thrilled to talk about it.

“It wasn’t drama on the high seas or the battlefield, but in Park Avenue boardrooms.”

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

Goldsmiths honor journalism in the public interest

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

It started with one miner’s medical and legal nightmare and developed like a John Grisham novel. And finally it led to extensive reform of black lung diagnosis.

The Center for Public Integrity’s and ABC News’ yearlong work won it the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting this week.

It took a medical database and exhaustive scrutiny of previously classified legal findings to produce the series. But Chris Hamby, the Center’s lead reporter, told a Harvard audience on Thursday that his research began with a plight “you just couldn’t ignore”: miner Gary Fox’s “outrageous” treatment by doctors and lawyers.

While Hamby circumvented privacy laws by getting miners’ consent to view their records, ABC News producer Matthew Mosk discovered a law firm that operated “like a John Grisham novel.”

As in past years, finalists for the Goldsmith awards, administered by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, included much such collaboration between media and public service organizations. Goldsmith winners and finalists are traditionally seen as front-runners for Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced next month.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which bills itself as “the world’s best cross-border investigative team,” used Australian, Chinese and British reporters to reveal a universe of offshore money manipulation that has sparked international tax investigations.

ICIJ director Gerald Ryle said he was leaked 2.5 million files via hard drive and is proud that none of his operation’s anonymous informants has been caught. The 50-article series provides important context into powerful figures’ financial machinations. “We didn’t want to be Wikileaks and just dump documents,” he said.

While Ryle said his reporting was attacked in the Australian Senate and drew four libel suits, he noted that a Chinese colleague has faced even more danger. Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was fired and then critically wounded in an attack last month. Ming Pao was one of ICIJ’s partners in the Offshore Leaks investigation.

• Another wide-ranging project was a bilingual multimedia revelation of widespread sexual assault against immigrant women by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Frontline,” Univision and KQED.

Reporter Andres Cediel said it took 18 months after an anonymous tip to produce the series, which has sparked criminal charges and pending legislation. The problem: he was committed to telling their story in a human way, but the victims were afraid to talk on camera. His colleague Bernice Young said it took countless trips going door to door to gain their trust. “It was a long, slow process to build a relationship,” she said.

“Frontline” producer-correspondent Lowell Bergman, lead reporter on the project, noted that this was Univision’s first foray into investigative reporting and predicted more such efforts in foreign language media.

• Shorenstein director Alex Jones said the free weekly Miami New Times was “punching above its weight” when it tackled the steroid industry.

New Times managing editor Tim Elfrink, who noted his paper had previously done investigative reporting on a very local scale, said the series started when a whistleblower came to him irate over a $4,000 dispute. The informant gave him a bunch of confusing documents about a Biogenesis operation running out of a Coral Gables strip mall. Elfrink called thousands of clients’ phone numbers — getting rejected 90 percent of the time — but eventually scanned court records to uncover the shady records of some clinic operators.

The stories, which have won a prestigious Polk Award, led to the suspension of 13 baseball players and changed how baseball owners and players approach drug use.

• Seeking national impact and backed by supportive news executives, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel scoured medical records throughout the country to expose potentially fatal flaws in newborn screening. Lead reporter Ellen Garber led a five-person team through a maze of withheld data and official denials.

When her data requests were denied, she had to negotiate state by state for records — finally penetrating the system by discovering that Arizona had kept detailed records of newborns babies from a small Native American tribe. She then confronted the head of that state’s health department, who finally released complete records.

Garber said the series, which has won the Taylor Award for fairness in journalism and the prestigious Selden Ring award for the year’s top investigative work, has had an “incredible impact,” revamping the system so blood samples arrive promptly.

• The Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips doesn’t consider himself an investigative reporter, but after covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he followed up his novelist brother’s discussions with a psychiatric researcher. This led to the discovery of secret lobotomies of servicemen after World War II.

His problem was to find out how widespread this pattern was. Freedom of Information requests denied, he turned to the National Archives, which he recommends as a fertile source of vintage information. He unearthed 18 boxes of surgical records filed under “L” — lobotomy. He picked the cases with unusual names, thinking their families would be easier to trace after more than 60 years. The multimedia presentation revealed that more than 2,000 servicemen were lobotomized, and he was able to portray some surviving victims.

• Putting a human face on a “numbers” story is a perennial challenge for investigative reporters.

Reuters staffers Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr found egregious and widespread Defense Department accounting mistakes. Their editors shared the view of the subject’s importance but wrestled with how to make it interesting.

“Vast amounts of dollars resonates little,” said Paltrow. So they settled on a human-interest beginning to show how massive programs affect individuals:

EL PASO, Texas — As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe…. This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department. Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered…. But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Black-lung investigation wins Goldsmith Prize

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The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and ABC News last night won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, presented by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The award was for a report on black-lung disease, described as a “yearlong investigation [that] examines how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, have helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise and an increasing number of miners are turning to a system that was supposed to help alleviate their suffering.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley received the Goldsmith career award and delivered an address that she devoted mainly to misgivings about Twitter — an odd topic that led me to make this observation as I live-tweeted her talk:

The Shorenstein Center Storified all the proceedings. Click here to have a look.

Goldsmith investigative award goes to the Chicago Tribune

Now it can be told. The Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting was awarded on Tuesday evening to the Chicago Tribune for its “Playing with Fire” series, on an unholy alliance between the chemical and tobacco industries. As the Tribune puts it:

The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.

If you are interested in learning more about the Goldsmith event, please click here for a Storify put together by the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, which administers the awards. (A few of the tweets are mine.) It includes coverage of the keynote address by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who received the Goldsmith career award.

Goldsmith awards reflect the changing media landscape

I recently had the privilege of helping to judge more than 100 entries for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, which is administered by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. We chose six finalists, which were announced immediately, and a winner, which will be honored on Tuesday evening.

At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work. But the finalists also show how the world of investigative journalism is changing.

For instance, two of the newspapers that made it to the finalists’ circle, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are owned by the troubled Tribune Co., which recently came out of bankruptcy and is now up for sale. If Tribune Co. ends up with the wrong owner, investigative excellence at its newspapers could become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, another finalist was produced by a collabortion among nonprofit news organizations: the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network. This is no longer surprising. Rather, it is further evidence that nonprofits are essential to carrying out public-service journalism.

Further evidence of the way things are in 2013: two of the finalists were produced by the New York Times, which, despite financial problems of its own, is more firmly established today as our leading news organization than perhaps at any other time in our history.

The sixth finalist is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox paper that has been experiencing something of a revival in recent years.

The finalists’ entries themselves run the gamut, from sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops, to Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico, to how the chemical and tobacco industries conspired to foist toxic flame retardants upon the public.

In addition to the investigative reporting award, also to be presented on Tuesday will be the Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, which will go to keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. The Goldsmith Book Prize will go to Jonathan M. Ladd for “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters” and Rebecca MacKinnon for “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”

The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 79 JFK St. near Harvard Square.