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2011 Philip Meyer 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 2010 Philip Meyer Journalism Award.

The Los Angeles Times took first place for its project “Grading the Teachers.” Using gain-score analysis, the staff at the Times analyzed the test scores of individual students and their teachers to identify the most and least effective teachers based on the how much their students’ test scores improved.

In second place is “Sexual Assault on Campus,” a project spearheaded by the Center for Public Integrity. The series utilized survey methods to outline the impact of unreported sexual assaults on campuses across the country.

Third place goes to the The Orange County Register for “Immigrants and the California Economy.” Through census and immigration data, the series revealed that the state of California relies on immigrant labor more than any other state. Analysis of these two data sets showed immigration enforcement policies have been ignored for decades in the state.

The Meyer Award recognizes the best uses of social science methods in journalism. The awards will be presented on February 25 in Raleigh, N.C. at the 2011 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.

"These Meyer Award winners serve as a potent reminder of the great depth and range of data-driven journalism being done today," said IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit. "Using various research tools and methods, these journalists gave their audiences crucial insight into issues and problems that otherwise would have gone unreported."

The Meyer Award is in honor of Philip Meyer, professor emeritus and former Knight Chair of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Meyer is the author of “Precision Journalism,” the seminal 1973 book 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 2010 Meyer Award:

First Place: “Grading the Teachers”, Los Angeles Times
Staff: Jason Felch; Jason Song, Doug Smith, Sandra Poindexter, Ken Schwencke, Julie Marquis, Beth Shuster, Stephanie Ferrell and Thomas Lauder (Los Angeles Times); Richard Buddin (RAND Corporation)

“Grading the Teachers” is a first-rate example of strong watchdog story-telling combined with innovative use of social science methods. Indeed, the point of the project was the failure of Los Angeles school officials to use effective methods to measure the performance of classroom teachers. The Los Angeles Times, applying a method called gain-score analysis to a huge database of individual students’ test scores and their teachers, identified the most and least effective teachers based on how much the students’ scores improved. The Times hired a national expert in gain-score analysis to do the data crunching, adding credibility to the results, but also did additional statistical analysis to identify high- and low-performing schools and otherwise verify their findings. In identifying and rating 6,000 teachers by name, the Times outraged the teachers’ union, but the series has prompted district officials to begin negotiating with the union to use the gain-score method in evaluations. Another sign of the impact of this series is that newspapers across the country have begun requesting similar data from local school districts.

Second Place: "Sexual Assault on Campus," a collaboration of seven news organizations led by the Center for Public Integrity
Staff: David Donald, Kristen Lombardi, Gordon Witkin, Kristin Jones and Laura Dattaro (Center for Public Integrity); Robert Benincasa and Joseph Shapiro (NPR)

In "Sexual Assault on Campus," a collaboration of seven news organizations led by the Center for Public Integrity used sophisticated survey methods as the underpinning of a high-impact series that detailed the human cost of the hidden crime of rape on campuses, showing that those found responsible for sexual assault on public and private college campuses often face no punishment and that student victims face barriers to reporting the crimes. It combined compelling personal stories of the victims with solid research backing up the broad trends. The Center pieced together records from students who agreed to share their stories, reviewed 10 years' of reports from universities, surveyed on- and off-campus rape crisis centers and compiled lawsuits and complaints filed with the Education Department. The survey, while helping to document the problem of unreported and unpunished sexual assault on campuses across the country, also helped the reporters find sources and subjects for their stories. The series led to changes in policies concerning the treatment of students found responsible and the introduction of national legislation to fix the problem.

NPR partnered with the Center for part of the project. And several news organizations did regional stories, including the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Texas Watchdog, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and InvestigateWest.

Third Place: “Immigrants and the California Economy,” The Orange County Register
Staff: Ron Campbell

“Immigrants and the California Economy” is a meticulous and revelatory series of stories that makes extraordinary use of Census and immigration data to show that California relies on immigrant labor more than any other state and almost more than any developed country. By analyzing Census Public Use Microdata from 1970-2008 and combining that with other data and reporting, Orange County Register staff writer Ron Campbell illuminated “the economics of immigration” and presented findings that showed that immigrants in California have filled most of the new jobs since 1970 and that foreign workers have become the primary outside source of labor. He also coupled his Census work with immigration data and studies that revealed immigration enforcement policies have been ignored for decades and that “the odds of an illegal immigrant being detained at work were 1 in 1,300.” The series of stories angered many readers who interpreted the stories as “pro-immigrant,” but no one challenged the accuracy of the data. Indeed, Campbell’s analysis of the microdata and his particular attention to the margin of error in his results is a tutorial in itself for journalists employing statistical methods. All in all, it is a thorough and compelling data-driven project that replaced perceptions with the facts.

The judges for the Philip Meyer Award for Precision Journalism were:

  • Sarah Cohen, Knight Chair in Computational Journalism at Duke University and a former database editor of The Washington Post.
  • Steve Doig: Knight Chair in Computer-Assisted Reporting at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication of Arizona State University and a former research editor of The Miami Herald.
  • Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois and the former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors.

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 about 4,500 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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