By 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.