SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Over 100,000)
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Under 100,000)
Television Reporting: Network/Top 40
Television Reporting: All other markets
By Mark Millage
Late spring is tornado season in the Midwest. It's not unusual for our meteorologists to work long hours tracking and reporting severe weather. Sometimes storms turn destructive, even deadly. That's what happened in the small farming community of Spencer, S.D., just before sunset on May 30, 1998.
In a matter of minutes, a powerful tornado with peak winds of 246 mph left six people dead, 150 hurt and every home and business damaged or destroyed. The crumpled steel water tower in the center of town became a national symbol of the devastation. Spencer, as we knew it, was gone forever.
By sunrise, the town's population swelled ten-fold as rescue workers, clean-up volunteers, reporters and satellite trucks converged on Spencer. Our television signal became a lifeline for everybody, from concerned family members to caring strangers. We were asked to help locate relatives, to put out a call for food for volunteers, and to seek clothing and temporary shelter for the many families left homeless.
But we knew that somehow we had to do more.
It became apparent through our own news coverage that what was most needed to rebuild this town and these lives was money. So, on June 3, we closed our 6 p.m. newscast by asking viewers to open their hearts and their wallets. For the next three-and-a-half hours, we blew out the usual programming and commercials to air a live telethon. Reporters in the field shared personal stories of the disaster. Anchors in our studio and in Spencer made the pleas. Viewers responded like never before.
Families went door to door soliciting money. Businesses offered five-figure incentives for matching pledges. Children brought their piggy banks to the station. We even had a traffic jam outside our studio! When it was over, 4,000 individual pledges were taken from around the world (thanks to the Internet). More than $1 million was deposited into the Spencer Tornado Relief Fund. But my work was just beginning. I served the next two years on a committee appointed by our governor that distributed all the money on a case-by-case, need-by-need basis.
Sir Winston Churchill once observed, "You make a living by what you earn, you make a life by what you give." Journalists are in a unique position to make a meaningful difference in their community. Public service isn't an obligation, it's an opportunity. Successful news organizations are those that are connected to their community. The efforts of our staff, and the response of our viewers, helped to restore hope to the people of Spencer. That was something the tornado could not take away.
Mark Millage is the news director at KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D., and chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. His station won the SDX Award for public service in 1999 for coverage of the Spencer tornado.
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Mark Katches, William Heisel, Ronald Campbell, Michael Goulding and Sharon, Henry, The Orange County (Calif.) Register, Body Brokers
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Julie Cadaver skin puffs up the lips of fashion models at $1,050 a shot. Dentists use ground bone about 200,000 times a year to treat patients, including those with gum disease. Glossy catalogs advertise 650 products made from body parts.
A single dead body yields raw materials worth tens of thousands of dollars to businesses whose stock is traded on Wall Street and to nonprofit tissue agencies that obtain the parts for them, records and interviews show.
After the director of the Willed Body Program at the University of California, Irvine, was caught selling donated body parts, The Orange County Register launched a six-month investigation into organ donations. They found a fast-growing and largely unregulated industry where nonprofit tissue banks and their corporate partners sold human skin to companies for purely cosmetic uses while the country's burn centers struggled to find skin for burn patients.
The paper obtained records on more than 100 of these organizations. They met with company leaders and donor families in eight states. As they worked on the series, they struggled with threats from the companies that the paper's work would ultimately result in lives lost because organ donations would drop after the series ran. The paper decided that the public's right to know outweighed those concerns, and they moved forward with their story.
"'Body Brokers' takes readers into the intricate world of organ donors, a little known medical arena," wrote the judges. "Results of the investigation were far-reaching, bringing reforms that will benefit the public."
Editor and senior vice president Tonnie Katz said that those reforms have included new laws and national and state studies. And the American Association of Tissue Banks has promised to find ways to make sure burn victims have more access to donated skin.
"Our stories made a difference," said Katz in her nomination letter. "The state has launched a study of the tissue industry and has made it a crime for coroners to give away or sell tissue to researchers without family consent a direct result of the newspaper's findings."
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Staff, The Eagle-Tribune, Lawrence, Mass., Unrealized Assets
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There was a sense of hopelessness in Lawrence, Mass. The city faced crime, drugs, political corruption and a growing cultural rift, all issues that the paper had reported on at some time.
But The Eagle-Tribune had a new editor and a new plan. Instead of reporting on the town's problems, the paper helped facilitate some solutions. Through a series of town meetings, the Tribune provided a place for community, business and political leaders and the public to come together and examine the town's problems, its assets and its opportunities.
Reporters followed up with four months of interviews and reporting that led to "Unrealized Assets." Managing editor Alan White described the 10-part series as an examination of 10 of the town's "neglected or overlooked physical or intangible advantages that could help Lawrence and the region if they could somehow be cashed in."
Some of those assets: 10 million square feet of vacant or underused mill space, a scenic riverfront, neighborhoods of Victorian-era houses, and the city's growing Latino population. In each case, the city had focused on the negatives -- the river was once very polluted and the town had turned its back on the riverfront area and the paper's series helped turn the focus to the potential -- the cleaned up river is an opportunity for tourism and recreation.
For journalists who had lived in the town and reported on these issues for many years, the project was difficult.
"One of the hardest parts of this project was to look at things we had written about so many times with new eyes," said Kathie Neff Ragsdale, one of the lead reporters on the project. "That meant looking beyond the city's obvious poverty, unemployment and crime, which we had also written about many times, to see the overlooked positives in the city, which proved to be many."
Despite the challenges, the project proved there was hope for growth in the community of Lawrence. The city created a master plan committee to begin the redevelopment process. A long-vacant and fire-gutted mill was finally demolished. The city started a tax-advantage program to attract new businesses and established an arts collaborative.
The paper, too, found its own areas for improvement. It introduced a Spanish-language weekly to reach out to the Latino community, which makes up about three-fourths of Lawrence.
Judges said, "the information provided ... and the commitment to compel the community toward new ways of looking at itself makes this lengthy, ambitious project a winner."
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Peter Perl, The Washington Post Magazine, Poisoned Package
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Food safety affects a vast majority of Americans on a daily basis so it is important to keep a constant check on the quality of food producers. Even so, journalists rarely devote the time and resources to investigating deficiencies in the food industry or the inspection procedures that are supposed to guard against tainted foods.
Last year, reporter Peter Perl took that time and his findings were frightening. He uncovered severe problems in the meat production process at a Sara Lee plant that led to several deaths. Even worse, he found that the government checks meant to discover such problems and alert the public were flawed, and the inaction of federal regulators led to even more deaths that might have been prevented.
"Even though the government now possesses very advanced technology via the Centers for Disease Control to detect and trace the origin of poisoned food, the USDA's antiquated procedures create a dangerous gap in enforcement power," said Perl. "The story highlights the Agriculture Department being mired in bureaucracy and 'procedure' instead of acting to protect public health."
Contaminated meat had already resulted in at least four deaths by the time the problem was brought to the attention of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). But instead of issuing a news release to warn the public of the dangers of the Sara Lee meat products, the agency relied on the Sara Lee company to get the word out. As a result, 14 more people died in the month after the meat was recalled.
Washington Post Magazine editor Glenn Frankel pointed out that food safety stories pose difficult challenges. "... journalists have found food safety a hard story to bring to life it's often complex, technical and bureaucratic," he said. "We generally cover it like we cover three-alarm fires or five-car pile-ups: when disaster hits, we're there. But we seldom look behind scenes to get at the institutional causes of food poisoning outbreaks."
Perl's story took that deeper look, and he agreed with his editor that issue's many facets and the multitude of sources involved made for some hard work.
"The most difficult aspect of this kind of story is the multiplicity of information sources," he said. "In addition to more than 1,000 pages of inspection documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the story required finding and interviewing a wide range of sources ... . Also, the related difficulty is then explaining such a complicated story clearly and compellingly."
When the story was published, the USDA announced it would automatically issue news releases on all future meat recalls. President Clinton also directed the USDA to initiate a testing program for listeria, and President Bush has continued the program.
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Jim Bickal, Cara Hetland, Laura McCallum, Tim Pugmire and Bill Wareham, Minnesota Public Radio, Guinea Pig Kids: An Inside Look at Minnesota's Graduation Standards Experiment
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During the past decade, lawmakers and education administrators in Minnesota developed a set of graduation standards scheduled to take full effect with the Class of 2002. Part of the standards focused on a series of basic skills tests students would be required to pass to earn a diploma. A second part of the standards, known as the Profile of Learning, would require students to demonstrate mastery of two dozen learning areas through a series of long-term assignments.
According to Bill Wareham, senior editor with Minnesota Public Radio, "Guinea Pig Kids: An Inside Look at Minnesota's Graduation Standards Experiment" grew out of dissatisfaction with conventional reporting on the biggest changes in years to the state's education system.
"The idea originated in a staff brainstorming session during which several people suggested we do something on education," he said. "[We] then refined the idea into a project focusing on Minnesota's evolving 'show-what-you-know' graduation standards.
"The standards took lawmakers and bureaucrats a decade to devise, but the general public seemed to know little about them. I had a teen-age son who would be affected by the standards in one district, a schoolteacher wife implementing [them] in another district, and had done some in-depth reporting based on observations in a third," Wareham said. "I was struck by the variety of opinions, enthusiasm and different interpretations of the system among the districts, teachers and students."
Wareham also said that the Profile of Learning had been the subject of considerable debate in recent years.
"Education officials were asking the legislature to postpone full implementation of the profile for two years. Others proposed scrapping the profile altogether," he said. "Most reporting on the standards had focused on the debate in political arenas, so Minnesota Public Radio sent a trio of reporters into high schools to observe how teachers, parents, and most of all, students, were coping with the graduation standards. Over the course of five months they found success and problems, but perhaps most telling, they found a pervasive sense of confusion and uncertainty reflected in a phrase that came up repeatedly -- 'guinea pig kids.'"
Judges praised MPR for the piece.
"Extremely in-depth coverage of an issue which will affect all parents and children in Minnesota," they wrote.
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Staff, KRON4 News, San Francisco, Beating the Odds
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"Brights" are popular in television news. They are those inspirational stories, those quick features at the top of the hour that give viewers a good feeling and help to break up the bad news in the rest of the newscast. In most cases, these stories are considered "fluff," and they have little news value. Once aired, you might never hear about the story again.
But at KRON4 in San Francisco, those stories have deeper meaning. In 1997, the station created a project called "Beating the Odds," a series that profiles high school kids who come from low-income families and are struggling to overcome incredible hardships. All the children in the series are considered high-risk, and all have expressed an interest in going to college.
As part of the project, the station also created a scholarship fund to help pay college tuition for the kids profiled. In the past three years, the fund has raised more than $1.2 million to send 54 kids to college.
Working with kids from low-income households is not always an easy task, according to the KRON4 staff that work on the project.
"The most difficult is to establish a rapport in a hurry to get kids to talk about things that are so personal the difficult parts of their lives especially with a camera on them," said cameraman Stan Drury.
Often, the home lives of the children make reporting even more of a challenge.
"Sticky issues come up on a regular basis because most of these kids live in the edge," said reporter Wendy Tokuda (pictured). "For example, some live with a parent who is drug addicted or physically abusive. What, then, can they freely talk about? Are they safe? Some don't have phones or are homeless and just getting ahold of them is difficult."
The students profiled have to apply to participate in the program, and the winners are chosen from a panel of judges. As the program has grown, so has the number of applicants.
"In the beginning, it was hard to find kids to profile," said Tokuda. "This year, more than 150 students applied and a panel of judges picked the final 12. We are also staying in touch with the 42 students profiled in the past, and are doing follow-up stories on many of them."
KRON4 staff said it was exciting to work on the series because they could see an immediate difference in their community.
"It allows us in TV to really do some good because normally we just do news, and this is a community service. This is something that has really helped a lot of people," said editor Alex Jonsson. "It's so different from our usual stories that it's kind of a high."
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Tracy Sadeghian, Schewislzer Lewis, and Traci Richardson, WRDW-TV, North Augusta, S.C., Nursing Home Nightmare? (Revisited)
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When WRDW-TV's I-Team investigated charges of abuse, neglect and understaffing at a local nursing home, they knew they had a big story. But they had no idea how far that story would take them or how far-reaching the impacts would be.
After airing an initial story that exposed the deficiencies of Salem Nursing Home and three deaths that resulted from those shortcomings the station was flooded with calls from people offering new information on how poor the conditions really were. The I-Team continued to investigate, and a second story exposed even more abuses and another death. The follow-up story revealed that the county coroner had been trying for years to convince the state to close the home.
After the stories aired, a Georgia House subcommittee reviewed them, and there were two public hearings about the Salem Nursing Home and the quality of nursing home care throughout the state.
"Now, for the first time in a decade, the state has cut off funding from nursing homes with substandard care," wrote Estelle Parsley, director of news and operations for WRDW, in her nomination letter. "Seniors living in horrible conditions are better protected, knowing their complaints could lead to action. Local nursing homes requested our stories to use for employee training, and legislators are looking into changing state law. In the words of the committee chair, 'It almost appears it took an investigation by your station to get that information out.'"
For a smaller station like WRDW, such an investigation can be difficult.
"One of the most challenging aspects of taking on this project was finding the time. I work for a small station with limited resources," said reporter Tracy Sadeghian. "With the exception of a handful of days, I worked on the series during my down time from daily assignments and when I was off the clock."
Sadeghian also said the story was difficult due to the lack of visuals. Salem Nursing Home refused to conduct any interviews, and no other health facilities would allow them to take generic footage to run with the story.
Judges called the story "hard-hitting," and they were impressed by the results the series produced in the legislature. According to Sadeghian, those results are what made the extra work worthwhile.
"The most gratifying aspect of this work is knowing you made a difference," she said. "Nursing home residents are a vulnerable population. Many don't have advocates overseeing their care, and they're afraid to complain about poor conditions, fearing retribution. We uncovered a regulatory system that wasn't protecting senior citizens, and our investigation led to changes."
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Greg Freeman and Lee Landenberger, American Health Consultants in Atlanta, With ABC camera crews in house, Johns Hopkins limited its risk of liability
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In journalism, one story often leads to another. Something you see, read or hear leads on to some related topic.
When Healthcare Risk Management newsletter staff members saw the ABC News Special "Hopkins 24/7" (also a 2000 Sigma Delta Chi award winning piece), they knew their readers would be interested. The piece was lauded as a great achievement in openness, and it was. The ABC television team had unprecedented access to Johns Hopkins Hospital. It seemed they could go anywhere, at any time, and report on anything. But the newsletter staff saw another side to the story, one that could be dangerous for hospitals in an era of reality television.
The newsletter's readers are risk managers the people responsible for minimizing hospitals' exposure to liability. These risk managers were concerned about the precedent Johns Hopkins set, one that other hospitals might be compelled to follow.
Healthcare Risk Management addressed readers' concerns with a comprehensive newsletter report, prepared on deadline within one week of the Hopkins 24/7 piece airing on television. They addressed the privacy of patients affected by this coverage and the possible ramifications of such coverage from a hospital's perspective. They pointed out that these hospitals, which may be seeking publicity, are exposing themselves to tremendous liability. They also reported on the precautions Johns Hopkins put in place, including a review of the consent form the hospital used for the project.
Johns Hopkins is a respected institution, and risk managers were not eager to criticize their colleagues. Editor Greg Freeman said the newsletter overcame that reluctance by "concentrating on the long-term damage that could be done to patient privacy and all the years of work in which risk managers have tried to create a culture of respect for patient rights."
Freeman says he's pleased the newsletter has allowed his readers to take another look at whether this practice is such a good idea. "If some day that keeps a distraught mother from having to face a camera while her kid is dying in the ER, I'll think we did some good."
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David Slade, Robert Laylo, James E. Wilkerson, Chris Krewson, Jaleel Beck and Chris Unger, The Morning Call, Allentown, Pa., Tomorrow’s Taxes
When Carbon County, Pa., officials showed no intention of educating 59,000 area residents about a court-ordered property reassessment its first since 1969 The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., empowered residents to be a part of the process.
"The county had done little to prepare people for the impact of the reassessment, so we saw the Web site as a way to educate people and make public records available to them," said reporter David Slade.
"Tomorrow's Taxes" is an ongoing series that combines traditional reporting with a highly interactive and user-friendly Web site. The extensive site includes a property tax assessment database, an archive of news articles and a calculator estimating a user's change in taxes.
Judges commended the effort as a "successful model for journalists using the Internet to serve their community in a way that the parent newspaper could never do ... the team has given the community a notable resource."
It took nearly a month to gather the information and put that resource together. Keeping the site updated with news stories and reassessment data has proven to be a challenge. "No one had weeks or months of dedicated time to work on this project, and most of the reporting was done out of a small news bureau where three reporters cover three counties," said Slade.
Even more impressive is that this resource was created for a segment of the community constituting only a fraction of the paper's circulation area. Residents have utilized the site in high numbers to access the information that officials did not initially want to make available.
"Carbon County officials only agreed to sell us a copy of the database at a reasonable cost after the paper's lawyers got involved and made it clear we were prepared to fight," said reporter James Laylo. "A few months later they were referring people who had questions about the assessment process to our Web site and were using it themselves for reference because it was more user-friendly than their computer system."