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2008 Philip Meyer Journalism Award winners announced

Three major investigative reports that used social science research methods as key parts of their probes were named today as winners of the 2008 Philip Meyer Journalism Award.

Scripps Howard News Service took top honors for “Saving Babies: Exposing Sudden Infant Death.” Reporters Thomas Hargrove, Lee Bowman and Lisa Hoffman found administrative inconsistencies in the state and local review boards that examine infant deaths.

Mike Casey and Rick Montgomery of The Kansas City Star took second place with its investigation into safety issues linked to airbag failures finding that nearly 300 people die in the U.S. each year when airbags fail to deploy.

In third place, an investigation by Mark Fazlollah, Dylan Purcell, Melissa Dribben and Keith Herbert of The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that black citizens were arrested in disproportionate numbers for minor crimes in suburban Philadelphia. Follow-up investigations found more cases of police misconduct.

The Meyer Award recognize the best uses of social science methods in journalism. The awards will be presented on March 20 in Indianapolis at the 2009 CAR Conference. The first-place winner will receive $500; second and third will receive $300 and $200 respectively.

The award is administered by the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (a joint program of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Missouri School of Journalism) and the Knight Chair in Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The Meyer Award is in honor of Philip Meyer, the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Meyer is the author of “Precision Journalism,” the seminal 1973 book and subsequent editions that encouraged journalists to incorporate social science methods in the pursuit of better journalism. As a reporter, he also pioneered the use of survey research for Knight-Ridder newspapers while exploring the causes of race riots in the 1960s.

Here are details on the winners of the 2008 Meyer Award:

First Place: Scripps Howard News Service for "Saving Babies: Exposing Sudden Infant Death,” Thomas Hargrove, Lee Bowman, Lisa Hoffman

Scripps Howard national reporters Thomas Hargrove, Lee Bowman and Lisa Hoffman did a masterful job in exposing bureaucratic lapses that hinder the search for causes of sudden infant death. Making good use of strong statistical tools, the team analyzed the sharp differences in cause-of-death diagnoses among the states and produced the first rigorous proof of the value of the local and state child death review boards that only some jurisdictions use. A few months after the project ran, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama introduced national legislation that would require medical examiners to make death scene investigations in all cases of unexpected infant death.

Second Place: The Kansas City Star for "Fatal Failures," Mike Casey, Rick Montgomery

Reporters Mike Casey and Rick Montgomery analyzed 1.9 million records from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to uncover NHTSA's failure to consider nondeploying airbags as being a significant safety issue. The work by Casey and Montgomery suggested that nearly 300 people are killed each year in accidents when airbags didn't inflate when they should have. Initially, NHTSA strongly disputed the findings, but finally did its own analysis and came to the same conclusions. This project combined the best of the techniques Philip Meyer has championed and the investigative mindset that refuses to take no for an answer when the stakes (in this case, life and death) are high.

Third Place: The Philadelphia Inquirer for "Too Tough: Tactics in Suburban Policing," Mark Fazlollah, Dylan Purcell, Melissa Dribben, Keith Herbert

The Inquirer's team studied arrest and court data from police departments in the suburbs that surround Philadelphia and found towns where blacks were being arrested in extraordinary numbers for minor offenses such as loitering or jaywalking. Their follow-up reporting uncovered jails where thousands of illegal strip searches were conducted, police dogs were used to control black children walking home from school and traffic citations were filled out in advance of arrests.

The Meyer Award included work published or broadcast between October 2007 and October 2008. Entries were submitted from across the United States and represented work that utilized a variety of social science methods and data analysis. All entries will be archived in the IRE Resource Center.

The contest judges included journalism professors who have extensive experience with computer-assisted reporting techniques and social scientists who are experienced in working with reporters. The judges were:

  • Ira Chinoy, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism and former director of computer-assisted reporting for The Washington Post
  • Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Computer-Assisted Reporting at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and formerly associate editor for research at The Miami Herald
  • Brant Houston, the Knight Chair for Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and formerly the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors
  • Cindy Taeuber, a retired demographic researcher for the U.S. Census Bureau

The Philip Meyer Journalism Award follows the rules of the IRE Awards in its efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Work that included any significant role by a member of the IRE Board of Directors or Meyer Award contest judge may not be entered in the contest. This often represents a significant sacrifice on the part of the individual — and sometimes an entire newsroom. The IRE membership appreciates this devotion to the values of the organization.

IRE works to foster excellence in investigative journalism, which is essential to a free society. Founded in 1975, IRE has more than 4,000 members. Headquartered at the Missouri School of Journalism, IRE provides training, resources and a community of support to investigative journalists; promotes high professional standards; and protects the rights of investigative journalists. The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting was founded by the Missouri School of Journalism in 1989 and became a collaboration of the School and IRE in 1994.

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