SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
Take time and tell the secrets
By George Ryan
What's your definition of investigative journalism? Mine centers on uncovering secrets people would rather keep quiet. I especially enjoy digging into cases that involve misappropriation of public money, public safety and the safety of children. Done properly, investigative journalism is the currency of democracy.
Once these secrets are uncovered, readers or viewers often clamor for change. It's that positive impact on your community that can make investigative reporting the most rewarding work in journalism. It is also labor intensive and time-consuming, a job requiring a delicate balance of hard-nosed fact gathering, technological help, and human instinct and sensitivity.
Over the years, I've worked on projects dealing with repeat drunk drivers, bad doctors, consumer fraud and abusive police officers. One of our most rewarding investigations dealt with student-on-student sexual misconduct at the Louisiana School for the Deaf in Baton Rouge, La. In short, a lack of student supervision created an environment in which older, stronger students often took advantage of younger, weaker ones, primarily in student dormitories. The pieces led to a state investigation and revised procedures at the school, which could positively impact the lives of students there for years to come.
Clearly, all good journalism is investigative to one degree or another. But as any practitioner of the craft will tell you, pieces with punch generate a wide variety of reactions -- from written bombs to verbal bouquets.
I'm currently in part two of a police corruption series we call "Conduct Unbecoming" which generated everything from "... a note of thanks for your series of reports ..." to "I don't plan on watching again." The reactions are as varied as the people who see or read your work. Some applaud the effort, others curse you and hang up.
All too often, a litany of press releases covered with photo ops pass for journalism these days. But take heart. Consultants now tell us that what the public truly wants is content. That could be a break for the home team. Prudent corporate minds will conclude that the one thing that can differentiate their news operations in a universe of sameness is good, hard-hitting, investigative journalism on topics relevant to the viewer's life. Investigations add value to a television station and to the communities they serve.
Congratulations to this year's winners, to the editors who helped get the stories in print or on the air, and to the companies that have the foresight to recognize the value added by such work.
George Ryan is anchor and managing editor at WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge, La. He received the SDX Award for investigative reporting last year.
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Joe A. Stephens, Mary Pat Flaherty, Deborah Nelson, Karen Deyoung, John Pomfret, Sharon LaFraniere and Doug Struck, The Washington Post, The Body Hunters
In its six-part series "The Body Hunters," The Washington Post did what drug companies, watchdog organizations, foreign governments and even U.S. regulatory agencies couldn't or wouldn't do.
The series exposed the use of citizens in Third World countries most of them poor, sick or both to test drugs that were illegal for human testing in the United States. Drug companies were seeking test subjects across the world, but no group had the resources to investigate the scope of the problem or enforce standards that existed only on paper.
The Post sent its reporters to test sites in a dozen countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe; reporters also traveled extensively inside the United States. The reporters produced a comprehensive account of how rich and powerful drug companies were exploiting the Third World for their own profit.
"With scant public notice, American drug companies were enlisting thousands of patients in the world's most desperate corners to test medications they would never be able to afford," wrote Marilyn W. Thompson, assistant managing editor of investigations for The Post, in her nomination letter. "Conducted far from American regulators, the experiments involved subjects who were enlisted without being informed of risks or giving proper consent. Children with deadly diseases were taking unapproved medicines. Drugs deemed too risky to be tested in the United States were exported offshore for human experiments."
The Post reported that drug companies often ignored local government requirements for such testing, knowing that the governments had no way of enforcing their laws. Experiments that would have required a year or more for preparation in the United States were given six weeks when administered in the Third World, and subjects often would complete the entire process without ever really knowing what drugs they had received.
Post reporters examined thousands of pages of medical records and analyzed databases to track the flow of experimental drugs around the world. The investigation included sound numbers and evidence to support the story, but it also had emotional accounts of people who were unknowingly victimized by greedy drug companies. Judges commented that making the effort to send reporters across the globe paid off with the detail and local color it provided.
"Their efforts were not without risk, but the results were worth it: a hard-hitting, gripping series that addressed every aspect of why drug companies go overseas to test new drugs and the human toll they cause by doing so."
After the series ran, there were calls for investigations and reform in the United States and in foreign governments. In Nigeria, officials are investigating the allegations and said they may ask for financial reparations.
At a time when many news organizations are slashing budgets and reducing staff, The Post went to great lengths to cover a story that everyone else had ignored.
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Cameron W. Barr, The Christian Science Monitor, Battalion 745: A Brutal Exit
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The soldiers of Battalion 745 greeted Sept. 21, their last full day in East Timor, by torching the barracks where they had spent the night.
As flames danced on the roofing timber of the cement buildings, the soldiers clambered into their trucks and rumbled away from the coastal town of Laga. In a few minutes, just a few miles down the road, the killing would begin.
The cool of daybreak was just giving way to the brittle heat of East Timor's dry season when Zelia Maria Barbosa Pinto heard the convoy: the deep grinding of truck gears, the buzzing whine of the motorcycle escorts, and sporadic gunfire.
Since East Timor voted to reject Indonesian rule almost two years ago, the Indonesian military has denied any involvement in the violence that followed the vote. But when Sander Thoenes, a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, was killed during the Indonesian Battalion 745's exit from East Timor, The Monitor decided to investigate the violence surrounding his death.
Cameron Barr had been working on the story of East Timor, and he made his way to the area where Battalion 745 had traveled. He spent six days interviewing the people left in the battalion's wake. He described it as the most emotionally wrenching assignment of his career. His stories -- constructed mostly from the first-person accounts of witnesses -- convey the emotional toll that the violence took in East Timor.
The people he spoke with told in detail of the atrocities committed by the Indonesian soldiers as the battalion made its two-day drive out of the area. They described watching their loved ones killed in front of them, as well as the targeting of specific supporters of East Timor independence from Indonesia. The series links Battalion 745 to 21 murders and disappearances over a two-week period.
"Traveling to a shattered countryside, Barr relied on the kindness of church institutions for room and board as he tracked down witnesses and survivors, many of whom had never told their stories to any outsiders before," wrote David Cook, editor of The Monitor, in his nomination letter.
In addition to interviewing the victims of the battalion's violent departure, Barr located the commander of Battalion 745 for an interview. The commander denied any violence.
"Barr's interviews with eyewitnesses and victims offer proof of a pattern of murder and terrorism that characterized the final days of the battalion's departure and an answer to the circumstances surrounding his colleague's death," wrote the judges. "At the same time, he offers a brilliantly written lesson in the history and politics of this region of the world."
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Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, TIME magazine, Big Money and Politics: Who Gets Hurt
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During an election year, some topics just receive more coverage than usual. Topics like political advertising, campaign strategy and party support are all more likely to be examined, and the media coverage on these issues usually falls in the same vein.
Coming off the 2000 election, TIME magazine looked at another popular election topic -- campaign contributions. But their coverage took a topic that doesn't always seem relevant to everyday Americans and showed the strong negative impacts it may be having on their daily lives.
In "Big Money and Politics," Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele deviate from the standard campaign contribution story of "who gives to who." Instead, they chose to focus on how the favors lavished on major campaign contributors affect the millions of Americans and business owners that don't contribute.
Call it government for the few at the expense of the many. Looked at another way, almost any time a citizen or a business gets what it wants through campaign contributions and lobbying, someone else pays the price for it. Sometimes it's a few people, sometimes millions. Sometimes it's one business, sometimes many. In short, through a process often obscured from public view, Washington anoints winners and creates losers.
Barlett and Steele give specific examples of ordinary citizens who are punished because they don't have the influence or the power to protect themselves. They cite business owners that suffer under high tariffs that were passed to help rich businessmen. They list the injustices that those outside the Washington loop are forced to live with, and they contrast that list with the benefits of being in that high-priced loop.
"Readers also learned that, as a consequence, most Americans pick up a disproportionate share of the nation's tax bills; pay higher prices than they would otherwise; pay taxes others are excused from; abide by laws others are exempt from; and even face federal penalties that hurt them in order to help those who finance election campaigns," read the entry's nomination letter.
Judges praised the piece for its thorough investigative reporting.
"This entry exemplifies the highest standards of investigative journalism: Original reporting, thoroughness, comprehensiveness, vividness, uncovering a 'wrong' of significant public interest," they wrote. "In fact, it excels in every aspect.
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Doug Sovern, KCBS Radio, San Francisco, Follow the Money
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The corridor leading to the floor of the state assembly is so thick with lobbyists, you can barely slip a piece of legislation between the suits. But behind office doors nearby, some seek influence a little more quietly.
During 2000, KCBS reporter Doug Sovern produced a series of award-winning radio investigative reports "Follow the Money" that zeroed in on the campaign contributions received by the major political players in California. The continuing series of reports that takes a close look at controversial issues before lawmakers and the campaign contributions made to the legislators involved in deciding those issues.
The series began after state investigators started looking at the campaign contributions received by embattled State Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. Members of the State Legislature's Insurance Committee were trying to discover if campaign contributions had influenced Quackenbush's policies.
The state probe prompted Sovern to launch his own investigation into campaign finance records to see just who was contributing money to some of the politicians investigating Quackenbush. Sovern's digging revealed that many of these politicians were also taking big money from insurance companies.
"With the spotlight on campaign finance reform in last year's election, we decided one way to approach the topic was with more disclosure of the links between campaign contributions and issues before the state legislature and local communities," said Edmund Cavagñaro, director of news and programming for the station.
In "Follow the Money," Sovern examined California's power companies' connections in the state capital of Sacramento. As lawmakers wrestle with the question of who should pick up the bill for the soaring cost of energy, Sovern discovered many of them taking big money from the state's utilities including the state's attorney general.
Nettie Hoge, executive director of the Utility Reform Network in San Francisco, said in an interview with Sovern, "The electric industry crisis is the best example of the bankruptcy of the system. Utilities are like big, huge octopuses that have their tentacles in everything."
Sovern looked into campaign finance reform and an effort by state lawmakers to pass a state initiative that some advocates say skirts the will of the people.
"Many people are frustrated by failed attempts to take money out of politics. We feel the answer from a media standpoint is in full disclosure," said Cavagñaro. "We demonstrated that there are clear ties between the money of special interest groups and the lawmakers who will vote on issues the special interest groups are targeting."
Judges praised the entry as a "good investigative piece" which was "entertaining but very informative." They said the entry exposes a side of politics that is opposite of the reason public officials are placed in office.
"We received good reaction to the reports from many listeners," said Cavagñaro. "[Sovern] was surprised to find that following his first couple of reports, lawmakers he approached were commenting on it. That was a good sign that the reports were hitting the mark."
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Anna Werner, David Raziq and Chris Henao, KHOU-TV, Houston, Treading on Danger?
For almost every major, national news story, there is one outlet that breaks the news first. The Washington Post was first with Watergate. Matt Drudge broke the Monica Lewinski scandal to the world on his Web site in The Drudge Report.
For KHOU-TV in Houston, Texas, it was the story of faulty Firestone tires that had resulted in more than 30 deaths.
The story of Firestone's ATX and ATX II tires quickly became national news, but the investigative unit at KHOU was the first to connect the dots between individual auto accidents and expose the "big picture." They found 30 deaths in Texas alone but soon began looking at similar incidents in other states. All of the accidents were the result of a problem called "tread separation," and all of them involved Firestone tires on Ford Explorers.
When the KHOU investigative team took their numbers to tire and consumer safety experts, they were told that a recall was definitely in order. They interviewed a former Firestone employee who described quality control problems in the manufacturing of the tires.
When the story aired in February 2000, the impact in Houston was immediate. The station was swamped with calls from viewers, and the next day consumers lined up at tire stores to replace their Firestone tires. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received 90 reports of defective ATX tires a significant increase from the few accounts they'd had during the previous 10 years.
As investigators began to examine the safety of Firestone's tires, KHOU stayed with the story. They found out that Firestone had already recalled some ATX tires in other countries, and they found complaints with another tire, the Wilderness AT.
Firestone eventually recalled 6.5 million tires, and investigations still underway may lead to the recall of even more. In the course of a month, Congress wrote and passed legislation aimed at improving the quality of auto tests and defect investigations.
"The KHOU-TV report is clearly the winner," said judges. "It is an example of strong investigative reporting combined with creative and compelling story-telling."
KHOU's reports received praise from others, as well. In an interview about the story, Center for Auto Safety president Clarence Ditlow said, "Up until then it was a story about a local accident, and no one ever put it all together until your station did. I don't know that the problem would have ever been fully exposed without your report."
Even Jacques Nasser, CEO of Ford, praised the station's investigative work. "They deserve a medal, actually," he said. "[KHOU] started everyone to think maybe there was really something there."
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Tom Grant, Adele Steiger and Tim Connor, KXLY-TV, Spokane, Wash., Public Funds, Private Profit: The Secret Deal Behind a Public-Private Partnership
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Too good to be true?
In Spokane, Wash., one of the city's most powerful families built a parking garage with the promise that it would make money and revitalize the city's downtown. That promise didn't come true; since its 1997 construction, the garage has lost money every year.
While other local media outlets ran stories celebrating the garage's opening and its impact on downtown, KXLY-TV looked at the financial losses it caused the city. In the course of their investigation, they discovered that the developers had inflated the price of the garage by $10 million and had pocketed the extra money.
Why did other media overlook this story? The garage was developed by the Cowles family, which also owns the local newspaper (The Spokesman-Review) and the local NBC affiliate (KHQ-TV). According to KXLY reporter Tom Grant, reporters for those organizations were unable to uncover the story behind the garage.
"Eventually, it would come out that the developer reviewed stories in the newspaper before publication, stopped reporters from pursuing certain angles on the story and even changed stories after they were written to reflect the developer's point of view," he said. "If we hadn't done our story, the truth would have been buried by the very people who portray themselves as champions of openness and free speech."
Having discovered the corruption behind the project, Grant teamed up with Tim Conner, a reporter for Camas Magazine to piece together and present the real story behind the garage. But even then, Grant ran into difficulties getting his story on the air.
"This story was not made for TV," he said. "Producers would groan and photographers would crack jokes about how many different ways they could shoot a block of concrete."
Eventually, however, the station decided to air the story, and Grant and Conner exposed the abuses the Cowles had committed against the city. Betsy Cowles, who owns the Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV, denied the story's allegations but gave no evidence supporting her denials. Even her own news organizations were forced to cover the issue once KXLY broke the story.
"In some ways, we feel a little bit like Toto," said Grant. "We pulled open the curtain so that people could see the great Wizard of economic rebirth was just a local family manipulating the levers of the city for personal gain."
Judges said KXLY's coverage did a good job of telling a complex story in a clear way.
"'Public Funds, Private Profit' plays like a great detective novel as this story of the secret deal is told in a compelling series of features," they wrote. "Without this series, corruption would have gone unchecked, public money stolen and the city power machine would have continued using their position for personal gain at community expense."