SDX 2002 Awards Gallery
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Over 100,000)
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Under 100,000)
Television Reporting: Network/Top 25
Television Reporting: All other markets
Service in retrospect
By David Slade
Few things in journalism are more rewarding than producing a piece that helps lots of people or changes things for the better.
The best public service projects achieve that, sometimes to the surprise of the journalists involved. After all, who can predict which well-reported stories the work we strive to produce every day will result in change, or will hold peoples attention for more than a day or two and truly make a difference?
Public service is often defined in retrospect, after the letters and e-mail starts pouring in or the Web counter starts spinning. Thats what happened at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.
I was part of a team that set out to help the residents of the smallest county the paper covers understand how the first property reassessment there since 1969 would impact them.
It was a complicated and often dry issue, but we knew the reassessment would dramatically rearrange the property tax burden in the area. So we created a Web site that explained the process and gave people access to hundreds of stories on the subject, a searchable database of the countys 56,000 assessment records, and a calculator created by merging two databases that showed people how their property taxes would change.
Then we exhaustively covered the reassessment from start to finish, writing more than 120 stories about the often messy, multi-million dollar task of putting new values on every property in the county.
To our surprise, the project quickly became the most-visited part of the newspapers Web site, despite the fact that most Morning Call readers dont live in the county involved.
The Web counter was turning fast, the calls and e-mails started coming in, and that was when we realized we had done something special.
Some public service projects, including the ones detailed on the pages that follow, have produced truly dramatic results laws being changed, death row inmates exonerated, scam artists arrested. Others have helped communities come together.
Most of us could explain to a friend or family member the differences between investigative reporting, breaking news, civic journalism, and feature writing. Public service is harder to define because it can be any of those things
But our readers, viewers, and listeners seem to know it when they see it.
David Slade is a reporter at The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call. He was part of a team that won the 2000 SDX Award for public service in online journalism.
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Good journalism often changes lives, but it rarely has the power to save them.
When Chicago Tribune reporters began investigating the Illinois penal system in 1999, they made discoveries that eventually saved the lives of 164 prisoners on Death Row. They learned that many of the prisoners convicted by Chicagos justice system were innocent including 13 who were facing sentences of death.
Immediately following the initial investigation, Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a moratorium on death sentences until hearings could be held about the failings of the justice system. Last year marked the final chapter of Ryans inquiries; hours before he left office, he commuted the sentences of 164 Death Row prisoners.
Three years ago, I was faced with startling information, Ryan said during his historic announcement. We had exonerated not one, not two, but 13 men from Death Row. Can you imagine, we nearly killed innocent people. Ive repeated many times the findings of reporters Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong of the Chicago Tribune who conducted an exhaustive investigation of the flaws in the system.
Since its first reports in 1999, the Tribunes coverage hasnt let up. The paper wrote about four defendants who had already spent more than 10 years in prison on a murder conviction. Reporters cast doubt on the validity of the mens convictions, and DNA testing later exonerated them. Ryan pardoned all four men.
Tribune reporters Mills and Armstrong also wrote about changes that had already been made to correct flaws in the justice system; their coverage showed that many of those corrections werent having their intended effect.
Judges were impressed that the papers reporting remained detached on such an explosive issue.
Despite the highly-charged nature of the subject, the Tribune reporters maintained an even view of the findings, wrote the judges. Far from falling into the trap of preaching an opinion on the matter, facts were meticulously laid out for readers to see without any hint of prejudice one way or the other. ...
The criteria on which to judge stories could not possibly have been better met than by the efforts put forth by the Tribune writers, for there is no greater significance, enterprise or result than saving human lives.
The pen has never been mightier.
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The Durango (Colo.) Herald
On the ninth day, the birds died. It was a little thing, the birds falling from the sky, killed by inhaling fatally hot air. In the ferocious sweep of what will be remembered as the Great Missionary Ridge fire of 2002, the birds wont count for much. But their deaths symbolized the power of a fire that has blackened at least 48 square miles so far, and that forced yet more evacuations Monday, and that spawned a firestorm so terrible it tore trees from the ground with tornado like winds and trapped officials in a so-called safe zone.
For 39 days, the San Juan National Forest northeast of Durango, Colo. burned, destroying 57 homes and forcing evacuations. Every hour, new developments unfolded unpredictably, frantically and without pause. People far and near turned to The Durango Herald for the latest news.
It is often during emergencies that newspapers fulfill their greatest function as a public service. In the summer of 2002, the 25-person Durango Herald newsroom did just that in its coverage of a fire that blackened 110 square miles and cost the federal government more than $40 million.
In addition to providing well-written stories about the physical toll of the fire, the Herald helped people cope with the threat of devastation. As the fire raged, the Herald published 242 staff-written fire stories with 95 breakout boxes, 266 staff photos, 24 fire-related columns, 13 editorials and four editorial cartoons. Later, it published a 117-page book about the fire and its aftermath.
During the first month, staff members worked as many as 100 hours a week.
This small staff stretched its resources beyond the limit to cover the Missionary Ridge fire from every possible angle. The result was thorough, complete coverage that epitomized and raised the bar of the role of community newspapers, the judges wrote.
The newspaper received almost 300 emails of thanks, including one from a sheriffs lieutenant who said their work during the emergency was just as incredible as those attacking the blaze on the fire lines.
Giving it their all, reporters and photographers came back to the newsroom smelling like campfires, dressed in the fire-resistant yellow shirts and green pants issued by the National Forest Service. Their hard work paid off, giving Herald readers a perspective they couldnt find anywhere else.
Coordinated updates of the papers Web site also provided an important service for the community, their families and out-of-town homeowners. Site visits grew tenfold to about 58,000 a day during the fire.
Our staff members proved their skill, their passion for journalism, and their dedication to serving the public. Its great to see them recognized nationally for their work, said Managing Editor David Staats.
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Liz Petry, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant
In Complicity, a special edition of the weekend magazine of The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, editors and writers looked at Connecticuts history in a different way. And by devoting so much space and time to stories about history, they also were doing journalism in a very different way.
There was no template for doing this, no model, said Anne Farrow, a lead writer for the special section. It was difficult, and it was gratifying that we were inventing a way to look at history. We had this thing that was not normally the realm of newspapers to examine. So in many ways, we were creating the rules and the limits as we went along.
The section examined the states historical connections to slavery. Although Connecticut fought in the Civil War to end slavery and was home to many abolitionists, Complicity shows that much of the states wealth can be traced back to a reliance on slave labor in other states. The stories look at the states often-ignored history, as well as how those connections to slavery play out in contemporary debates over reparations.
One of the most unique aspects of The Courants coverage is that it ventures into relatively new historical ground. Complicity grew out of initial reporting for a smaller story about Connecticuts connection to slavery. During that reporting, reporter Joel Lang learned about several historians who were examining slavery from an economic perspective; looked at in those terms, Connecticut became a much larger supporter of the slave trade than has traditionally been thought.
We started with an idea of looking into several areas that interested Joel, but the more we heard, the more uncomfortable we felt, said Jenifer Frank, editor of the Courants weekly Northeast magazine, which ran the stories. Most of us are New Englanders the good guys in the Civil War. What was this new information all about? As we learned, we felt obligated to share our revised state history with readers.
But not everyone was ready to revise the states history. The approach Courant reporters took was a controversial one, and many historians objected to the coverage.
Complicity has been the great learning experience of my life, and taught me how incomplete our versions of history often are, said Farrow. I did not understand, before our project, that eminent historians can look at the past and see it wrongly, that they can see history through a filter so clouded by racism that the history they teach and write about is a lie.
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CLTV News, Chicago
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A project two years in the making, Prisoner of Progress takes a shocking look at one of the most dangerous cases of jail overcrowding in the nation. Examining the jail from the inside, the piece shows how prisoner warehousing compromises the lives and safety of guards and inmates alike.
The collaboration of two CLTV journalists, Emmy-winning reporter/anchor Bob Arya and Chief Photographer John Loboda, examines the woefully inadequate conditions at the Kane County, Ill., Jail.
Initially confronted by tight-lipped officials unwilling to speak on the record, the creators used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain hundreds of pages of useful records. They also spoke candidly and confidentially with guards and inmates who gave them an inside track on the dangers lurking behind the jail walls.
Once we got inside and were able to get to the core of the problems and see the threats first hand we were armed with the information to get the unwilling powers that be on camera, said Arya.
The program, which aired on CLTV, helped spur public debate over county jail conditions, bringing state lawmakers into the fray. The Illinois State Senate held hearings about conditions at the jail, and community groups, such as The League of Women Voters, held public meetings to discuss the problem.
The most gratifying part of the project to Arya was the public reaction and the changes that reaction caused. He said outrage over the conditions brought those involved in the operation of the jail down to the capitol to answer questions and begin addressing the crisis.
CLTV followed up the initial piece with a series of reports on the hearings held by state lawmakers and community groups.
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Matthew ONeill, Justin Krebs, Eric Levine, Jon Alpert, Gary Walker, WXXI and Downtown Community Television Center, New York
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Speak Up New York! literally took civic journalism on the road in the days leading up to the November 2002 elections. Armed with a mobile studio and a jam-packed itinerary, a small production crew toured the state using the electronic media as a tool to bridge the gap between young people and policymakers.
The studio, a 40-foot long bus, included a large side-mounted plasma TV that displayed interviews with young people, office holders and candidates.
From the beginning, the goal of Speak Up New York! was simple and nonpartisan, to engage the youth of the entire state of New York in the upcoming local and state elections with a new kind of television news journalism, said Justin Krebs, one of the producers.
Low voter turnout reflects how young Americans are discouraged with their role in civic affairs, according to the makers of the documentary. To remedy the situation, they embarked on an electronic campaign to include youth in the political process.
The crew visited 23 cities in 22 days, making stops where young people could register to vote and share their concerns with elected officials and candidates on camera. Giving a voice to the voiceless, the project attempts to ignite a healthy political dialogue between youth and elected leaders.
With each stop on college campuses and local high schools we knew what we were doing was not only important, but desperately needed, said Matt ONeill, director of programming at DCTV in lower Manhattan.
ONeill, who also worked on the documentary, said the students were eager to ask their representatives challenging questions on issues that matter most to them.
This is the sort of journalism we all live for journalism that has a tangible impact on individual lives and society in general. Encouraging young people to take an active role in civic affairs is a sure way to make Americas democracy more democratic, he said.
Positive response from politicians and the community has encouraged the crew to work to grow Speak Up! into a national program in time for the 2004 elections.
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Jonathan Stern, The Telecom Managers Voice Report
Sometimes the most hard-hitting journalism comes from outside the mainstream press.
The Telecom Managers Voice Report broke one of the biggest business stories of 2002 and helped spur on the largest reform of American business practices since 1934.
Over the course of five months, Voice Report interviewed 27 WorldCom business customers who described current and past problems stretching back several years.
Pouring over reams of documents and coaxing reluctant sources to talk, reporter Jonathan Stern untangled a knotted set of business policies and practices employed by the telecom giant. (Since the story was published,
Stern has been promoted to publisher of Voice Report.)
Stern discovered that WorldCom prevented business users from collecting up to $3.5 billion in credits for billing errors. This was used to overstate the companys revenues, apparently staving off its bankruptcy.
The first problem for any WorldCom user seeking a credit is its policy that any billing error not discovered and reported in writing within six months of the invoice date is not an error at all, according to WorldComs Standard Business Services agreement.
The Voice Reporters WorldCom scoop quickly went global getting picked up by such publications as The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.
The report was published in the Congressional Record, and Stern was asked to testify before Congress for the WorldCom hearings. His discovery also compelled the Nasdaq and New York stock exchanges, Financial Accounting Standards Board and 25 percent of the fortune 100 companies to treat stock option payouts as expenses.
I love investigative reporting, said Stern. Its exciting, and its a true public service. In this case, it has helped readers collect and save tens of thousands of dollars. It also exposed weak corporate business practices that now are being corrected.
Reflecting on the craft, Stern said: In journalism, it pays to be suspicious, meticulous, honest and fair.
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Bob Sullivan and Mike Brunker, MSNBC.com
With more people going online every day, scam artists are finding more insidious and sophisticated ways to separate people from their money.
Starting early in 2002, MSNBC.com published a series of stories about how thousands of online auction users were getting bilked out of millions of dollars. Receiving little help from Internet companies and law enforcement agencies, many of these victims had nowhere else to turn.
With the help of readers who shared their sour experiences, MSNBC.coms Bob Sullivan and Mike Brunker exposed how fake escrow Web sites were taking advantage of people, stealing as much as $40,000 at a time from individual users.
The attention MSNBC helped bring to the problem helped spur federal action, leading to Operation Bidder Beware, a joint FTC-state investigation which resulted in 57 criminal and civil actions against con artists, said Sullivan. In all, the FTC fielded 51,000 complaints for the year, with victims claiming losses to the tune of $37 million.
Readers continue to flood MSNBC.com with e-mail complaints about auction crimes.
Sullivan said the most gratifying aspect of this story was the fact that online crime is getting more attention.
One reader who was about to buy a car on Yahoo wrote: I did my research and found your reports. Everything that you said to watch out for happened on this (escrow) site. ... Thanks to your report I was not cheated by these scammers!
The judges for this category wrote, As the volume of online commercial activity increases ever more, the public would be served well with more investigative work like this with a variety of other commercial activities being conducted online.
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MaryJo Sylwester, Leah Rush, John Dunbar, Robert Moore, The Center for Public Integrity, Washington, DC
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One of the biggest problems journalists face with campaign financeinformation is separating the wheat from the chaff. Thanks to the efforts of The Center for Public Integrity, journalists and researchers now have an easier time getting their hands on information that really matters.
State Secrets is an easily accessible project that presents a comprehensive set of state political party activity in a user-friendly format.
Using technology for its investigative report of money in state politics, the center collected and computerized the campaign finance disclosure reports of 50 state government agencies, covering the activities of 225 political party committees. In all, the amount of paper documents amassed during the 2000 election cycle would have towered 15 feet high.
When the group analyzed the colossal collection of data and followed the money trail, they discovered some riveting facts about the political system.
By completing the circle of soft money contributions to expenditures, State Secrets confirmed a commonly held perception that state parties were used to launder soft money and influence presidential and congressional elections in a way never intended by federal law, said Leah Rush, a director at the center who worked on the project. We had, in effect, illustrated the flow of money through the Great Back Door of American Politics.
Dealing with so many state bureaucracies proved a logistical challenge. States used widely different disclosure forms and enforced varying deadlines for filing reports. In addition, states were inconsistent in the way they provided data. More than half the information was only available in paper form.
Another hurdle the group ran up against was delays in obtaining the data from states. To get complete records, multiple requests and repeated phone calls were made to straggling state agencies.
The problems, generally, were missing pages of reports, and, in some instances, entire reports were never sent. ... In Virginia it took 12 weeks, at least a dozen phone calls and e-mails, to get all of the 1999-2000 paper reports filed by 10 political committees, said Rush.
Press response to the report was strong. In its initial release, the findings appeared in dozens of leading publications nationwide.
An exemplary example of exhaustive investigative work executed in an enterprising manner for the public at large and other news media as well, wrote the judges.