2019 IRE Award winners and finalists
Honoring the best in investigative journalism
The annual IRE Awards recognize outstanding investigative work and help identify the techniques and resources used to complete each story. Entries are placed in the IRE Resource Center, allowing members to learn from each other. The IRE Awards were established in 1979. Winners from past years can be found on this page.
The awards will be presented at the 2020 IRE Virtual Conference Sept. 21-25, 2020.
Medals are awarded to winners of two special award categories:
TOM RENNER AWARD (for covering organized crime or other criminal acts)
- “Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia,” Radio Azattyk, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Kloop. Due to multiple threats received by reporters and editors over the course of the reporting, the names of individual contributors are not disclosed.
Link to OCCRP series; Link to RFE/RL series
Judges’ comments: This, to me, is the reason that there is a Renner award — these crime syndicates that operate in the shadows, particularly in places that the world pays very little attention to. Most people have probably never even heard of this country, and more than $700 million was taken out of it by one guy. The true definition of revealing something that people do not want to be revealed to the point of murder — and certainly danger for these journalists.
Judges’ comments: That’s really complicated to go after. Anything coordinating 50 reporters together is one hell of a job. The stories illustrated rampant corruption — public officials taking bribes that compromised massive public works projects, tracked in duplicate sets of books.
- “The Afghanistan Papers: The Secret History of the War,” The Washington Post, Craig Whitlock
Link to Washington Post series
Judges’ comments: Nothing is more important than making sure our leaders tell the public the truth about war, when they’re sending soldiers to fight and die. The Post proved the public didn’t know and that top leaders misled the American people for years. Whitlock did so by obtaining and releasing thousands of previously hidden documents. The reaction was swift: a call for Congressional hearings.
Las Vegas Review-Journal staff
Last Vegas Review-Journal first story
Judges’ comments: This was an impressive effort to go to court to fight for a variety of records, prod the state legislature to strengthen the state’s public records law and to educate readers about the importance of access to records.
2019 Award winners and finalists by category:
PRINT/ONLINE – Division I (tie)
“While the judges were impressed with all of the entries, they were unable to name just one winner in the Print/Online Division I category. We felt that both pieces were important and strong,” contest judge Ron Nixon said. “Both investigations saved lives in different ways.”
- “Profiting from the Poor,” MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and ProPublica, Wendi C. Thomas, Deborah Douglas, Andrea Morales, Maya Miller, Beena Raghavendran, Doris Burke, Lylla Younes, Rebecca Davis, Ray Green, Jordon Douglas, Martha Park, Jordan Parker, Autumn Ragland, Marise Tuttle, Naomi Van Tol, Brad Vest and Lindsey Wagner
Link to ProPublica first story; Link to MLK50 series
Judges’ comments: This was a standout example of accountability journalism that did something we rarely see: It had immediate results. At least $11.9 million in medical bill debt was erased by the hospital. It agreed to stop suing employees and low-income patients. The hospital also agreed to increase pay for low-wage workers.
- “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death,” ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, Pamela Colloff
Link to ProPublica story; Link to The New York Times Magazine story
Judges’ comments: Fantastic reporting that got immediate traction. What could be better than saving a person’s life? The reporter showed amazing patience to lay out evidence in case after case. The story was about characters that aren’t always easy to connect to, but through a beautiful narrative the reporter compelled the reader to do just that.
“Solitary Voices,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Intercept, NBC News, Univision, WNYC and Latin American media partners
Link to ICIJ series
Judges’ comments: A vivid expose of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s use of solitary confinement on thousands of disabled and vulnerable detainees, driven by a powerful analysis of nearly 8,500 incident reports.
“The Quiet Rooms,” Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois
Judges’ comments: A tenacious effort using data and more than 300 FOIA requests. Reporters uncovered how some Illinois schools abused physical restraints and illegally confined children, some as young 5, for minor infractions.
Link to Chicago Tribune first story; Link to Propublica Illinois first story
PRINT/ONLINE Division II
- “Beaten, then Silenced,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Lisa Gartner
Link to Philadelphia Inquirer first story
Judges’ comments: Excellent use of sources and data together to draw back the curtain on what was an open secret. One of the only entries to actually tell a story right from the top to explain the impact of the findings. One of the big things is the immediate impact and the fact that the work most definitely contributed to getting kids into a safer place, but at the very least got them out of that place. Also, the writing was beautiful.
“Boeing’s 737 MAX crisis,” The Seattle Times
Link to Seattle Times first story
Judges’ comments: This was a fantastic investigation that was already in the works before the second crash. This work took a really technical issue and rendered it understandable, no easy task. Reporters held not just Boeing but the FAA accountable for systemic failures.
“Unprotected: Georgia’s Broken Senior Care Industry,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Link to AJC’s project
Judges’ comments: These stories are clearly written to interweave narrative with investigative findings — terrible conditions in senior care centers and little oversight by the state. The interactive database of troubled homes is a real service, given the lack of transparency described.
PRINT/ONLINE — Division III
- “At Risk: Boys & Girls Clubs and Sexual Abuse,” Hearst Connecticut Media, Lisa Yanick Litwiller, Hannah Dellinger, Viktoria Sundqvist, Meghan Friedmann, Peter Yankowski, Humberto Rocha, Tatiana Flowers
Link to Hearst Connecticut Media first story
Judges’ comments: Despite the national spotlight on child sexual abuse within trusted organizations, this investigation revealed a continuing lack of transparency and accountability at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and its affiliates. This team of reporters identified more than 100 cases of abuse involving 280 victims in 31 states. A powerful and high-impact investigation prompted by one reporter asking: How often does this happen?
“Polluted by Money,” The Oregonian/OregonLive
Link to The Oregonian series
Judges’ comments: A smart, well-executed investigation of the role that the lax regulation of campaign contributions by corporations and industry groups has played in state environmental regulators’ failure to address pollution problems.
“Big Spending, Little Accountability,” The Caucus and Spotlight PA
Link to Spotlight PA first story
Judges’ comments: Undeterred by vague descriptions of campaign expenditures made on credit cards and through self-reimbursement, this ingenious investigation used a little-known provision in state law to obtain receipts kept in the candidates’ own files and reveal campaign cash being used for foreign travel, expensive dinners and other personal perks.
PRINT/ONLINE — Division IV
- “It’s Time For You to Die,” The Post and Courier, Jennifer Berry Hawes, Stephen Hobbs, Glenn Smith, Andrew Whitaker, Seanna Adcox
Link to The Post and Courier first story
Judges’ comments: This was a beautifully written example of accountability journalism that took great pains to examine a deadly explosion of violence that broke out in a rural South Carolina prison. The reporters painstakingly reconstructed for readers the violence, hour by hour, using information they obtained by writing to more than 400 inmates. The result was an important and inspirational work of journalism that examined a topic few people pay attention to on a daily basis.
“Disabilities Claims Denied,” The Tennessean
Link to The Tennessean first story
Judges’ comments: The Tennessean took on an underreported and little-known practice among some Tennessee doctors. Physicians can make hundreds of thousands of dollars reviewing disability claims for those seeking federal benefits. The investigation found that how much doctors earn depends on how fast they work—one doctor was reviewing on average one claim every 12 minutes. Experts interviewed by the Tennessean said it’s impossible to review the claims so quickly. Statewide, 72 percent of claims were denied, topping the national average of 66 percent.
“Taken,” The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail
Link to The Greenville News series
Judges’ comments: While civil forfeitures aren’t a new topic, reporters at the News took a fresh approach to explaining how law enforcement officials use the practice to take millions of dollars from people, many of whom have committed no crime. The series also examined the racial dynamics of the practices, showing how African Americans in the state are disproportionately affected. The newspapers should be commended for taking the first-ever look at the practice of police forces taking property from people in the state.
“El Mencho’s American Empire,” The Courier-Journal
Link to The Courier-Journal first story
Judges’ comments: A critically important investigation into the operations of a major Mexican drug cartel operating throughout the United States. The investigation is an important reminder that the international drug trade is not just over there, but happening in the backyards of those in small towns miles from the border.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division I
- “Syria Health Care Under Attack,” The New York Times, Malachy Browne, Whitney Hurst, Evan Hill, Christiaan Triebert, Dmitriy Khavin
Link to The New York Times story
Judges’ comments: This unique and revelatory story never would have been told and these horrific acts would have remained concealed if not for the incredible, innovative work done by this team. They utilized cutting-edge techniques and digital tools to harness open-source information and pieced it together to expose damning evidence. Excellent sourcing and compelling video helped convey the reality of what happened to these hospitals and who was responsible.
“Flint’s Deadly Water,” PBS Frontline
Link to PBS Frontline story
Judges’ comments: Great shoe-leather reporting to advance a story that had wide coverage, but in a different way. Their groundbreaking work examining death records revealed a death toll higher than official numbers showed and revealed it through the voices of compelling victims. We commend them for digging back in on a lesser-known and deadlier aspect of the Flint water crisis and exposing the Legionnaires’ disease impact.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division II
- “Unwarranted,” WBBM-TV, Chicago, Dave Savini, Michele Youngerman, Samah Assad, Jeff Harris, Tiffani Lupenski, Marda LeBeau, Mike Klingele, Alif Muhammad, DeAndra Taylor, Scott Wilson, Derek Dalton.
Link to WBBM-TV story
Judges’ comments: CBS 2 investigators exposed a shocking pattern of Chicago police mistakenly raiding the homes of innocent people and traumatizing children, who in some cases were handcuffed and had guns pointed at them. Despite the Chicago Police Department’s refusal to release records on how often these wrong raids occur, these journalists doggedly revealed case after troubling case, prompting a city inspector general investigation and the passage of a new law that requires police to be trained on how children experience trauma.
“Mission Critical,” KARE 11, Minneapolis
Link to KARE 11 story
Judges’ comments: An important, ongoing investigation of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that has prompted hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds owed to disabled veterans, reforms in the way the agency handles emergency medical claims and life-saving medical treatment for one Minnesota veteran who had previously been denied a transplant.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division III
- “Fooling the Feds,” Fox45 News, Baltimore, Jeff Keene, Chris Papst, Carolyn Sachse, Dwayne Myers, Jed Gamber
Link to Fox45 News story
Judges’ comments: This is a textbook example of a local television station holding local officials accountable. When a charter school in Baltimore got a $1.5 million grant from the federal government to teach low-income students, the decision was widely praised. But two years later, the school shut down. WBFF wanted to know why and dug deep into the school’s application to the federal government. The findings were shocking: The man at the center of school’s application had misrepresented several key factors in the application, claiming more students than there actually were, providing inaccurate test scores and even claiming locations for schools that were never built.
“Bargaining the Badge: How Hundreds of Accused Texas Officers Avoid Prison,” KXAN-TV, Austin
Link to KXAN-TV story
Judges’ comments: This impressive investigation offered a rare look inside a practice largely unknown by the public. The reporters found that nearly 300 former law enforcement officers in Texas had surrendered their license after being accused of serious crimes including sexual assault, abusing prisoners and taking bribes. But these officers were able to largely walk away without being charged by using their badges as a bargaining chip: They would give up their badge to avoid prosecution. The reporters are to be commended for digging into this little-known topic.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division IV
- “Patient Pain: The Massive Money in Medical Debt,” East Idaho News, Nate Eaton, Nate Sunderland, Mike Price
Link to East Idaho News story
Judges’ comments: These reporters did an excellent job explaining a very complicated issue and obtained strong results for their community. Their effort to tell the stories of real people was commendable, as was their resolve to thoroughly investigate every aspect of how the company operates and hold the attorney accountable.
“Pattern of Secrecy,” WLBT, Jackson, MS
Link to WLBT story
Judges’ comments: WLBT exhibited incredible strength to stand up for accountability in a small community, even when the news organization depends on that police agency for its daily news coverage. The spirit and resolve to stop public officials from misleading the public is commendable.
RADIO/AUDIO – LARGE
- “Amazon: Behind the Smiles,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, Will Evans, Katharine Mieszkowski, Taki Telonidis, Rachel de Leon, Kevin Sullivan, Najib Aminy, Andrew Donohue, Esther Kaplan, Matt Thompson, John Barth (PRX), Al Letson, Melissa Lewis, Hannah Young, Byard Duncan, David Rodriguez, Mwende Hinojosa, Jim Briggs, Fernando Arruda
Link to Reveal story
Judges’ comments: This was just amazing work. Labor reporters have become dinosaurs at so many news organizations, and it’s inspiring to see this dogged storytelling. Reveal and PRX went through impressive lengths to get information on injuries that both Amazon and OSHA wanted hidden. And the revelations about Amazon truly penetrated the public’s consciousness about a company that’s become ubiquitous in American life. Our jaws were on the floor before the 5-minute mark. Bravo.
“Children Are Routinely Isolated In Some Fairfax County Schools. The District Didn’t Report It,” WAMU 88.5 – Washington, D.C.
Link to WAMU 88.5 first story
Judges’ comments: This was a great investigation that had significant impact and is the definition of a local outlet punching way, way above its weight. The work made a huge difference for a vulnerable population.
“Caregivers and Takers,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, PRX, PBS Newshour, and the Associated Press
Link to Reveal story; Link to PBS Newshour story; Link to Associated Press story
Judges’ comments: At a time when senior care is an ever-important topic, this investigation took on a surprising angle and found millions in stolen wages through difficult and impressive analysis of public records. And yet, the piece also tied in excellent real person storytelling.
RADIO/AUDIO – SMALL
“Prosecution Declined,” Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Eleanor Klibanoff, Kate Howard, Laura Ellis
Link to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting story
Judges’ comments: A wonderful example of clear and compelling storytelling that made great use of data and audio. These reporters took a topic that might otherwise be hard to digest and wrapped it into a story that drew the listener in.
“Worse for Care,” Vermont Public Radio and Seven Days
Link to Vermont Public Radio story
Judges’ comments: Reporters did an excellent job taking a widely known topic one step further. Particularly well done was its use of a central character that really articulated the issues of elder abuse, finding a way to humanize and give voice to victims.
“A 911 Emergency,” The Public’s Radio – Rhode Island
Link to The Public’s Radio story
Judges’ comments: This story offered riveting storytelling. The reporters exhibited exceptional initiative in getting data and 911 audio and using it to tell a compelling story.
STUDENT – LARGE
- “State of Emergency,” Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, News21 staff
Link to News21 series
Judges’ comments: This team’s work had a lot of scope, sweep and polish that’s admirable for a student project. They did an excellent job finding real stories, real people and bringing a nationwide focus to an issue that’s critical to so many communities in a vulnerable time of need. What could have been a boring data story about communities coping with smaller disasters was transformed into a compelling multimedia experience.
“The Maternity Divide,” CUNY Newmark Graduate School of Journalism
Link to NYCity News Service series
Judges’ comments: These student journalists put together an impressive, multimedia presentation about maternal health disparities. Great job drilling down into a single New York hospital’s troubles and showing the impact of heartbreaking missteps.
STUDENT – SMALL
- “Believe at your own risk,” SUNY Stony Brook, Rachael Eyler
Link to SUNY Stony Brook series
Judges’ comments: While not a traditional investigative project, this story was extremely innovative and compelling. The reporter made effective use of in-depth interviews with experts and real people, along with cutting-edge reporting techniques. The entry made many of the judges want to do the same story.
Judges’ comments: This reporter did solid investigative reporting to show what was happening in Missouri’s juvenile justice system: kids used to restrain other kids. The investigation held officials accountable for policies that injured children.
INVESTIGATIONS TRIGGERED BY BREAKING NEWS
- “Inside Texas’ Botched Voter-Rolls Review,” The Texas Tribune, Alexa Ura
Link to The Texas Tribune first story
Judges’ comments: The Tribune showed courageous, consistent coverage on a breaking, hot-button topic. It was written with authority in real time and made effective use of data. The stories challenged state officials on practices that disenfranchised the state’s most vulnerable voters. The stories yielded results, including the resignation of the Texas Secretary of State and congressional investigations.
“Almost Forbidden,” Los Angeles Times
Link to Los Angeles Times story
Judges’ comments: As vaping-related youth nicotine addiction surged across the United States, the Times showed that years earlier the FDA tried to ban flavored e-cigarettes, but top Obama Administration officials rejected the plan after pressure from tobacco industry lobbyists and small business advocates. The reporter got up to speed on a new topic quickly and executed an important investigation driven by documents and data.
“How America’s College-Closure Crisis Leaves Families Devastated,” The Chronicle of Higher Education
Link to Chronicle of Higher Education story
Judges’ comments: This investigation showed how an industry with a long history of problems and little oversight impacted thousands of students. This quick-turn project used strong data-driven reporting and beautiful narrative to tell the stories of those affected by the sudden closure of a chain of for-profit colleges.
IRE Award for Sports Investigations
- “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel: Game Change,” HBO, Josh Fine, Bernie Goldberg, Nisreen Habbal, Tres Driscoll, Joe Perskie
Link to HBO story
Judges’ comments: We applaud the gutsy approach this team used to statistically analyze which communities are still playing tackle football and analyze the makeup of the team from a racial and socioeconomic perspective. This groundbreaking research advanced the conversation surrounding CTE exposure in a meaningful way and revealed the impact on an at-risk community. This was a particularly commendable feat undertaken by an organization that has a significant relationship with the NFL.
“We’re going to need a bigger net: Foul balls hurt hundreds of fans at MLB ballparks,” NBC News
Link to NBC News story
Judges’ comments: This investigation will have lasting effects on thousands of people who go to baseball games who may never have realized they were in danger. This team packed a lot of work into a short piece — from compelling personal stories to the player perspective, use of FOIA and data work. The immediate results from one team, followed by action from all of Major League Baseball, is a commendable achievement.
“Pimlico Fight,” The Baltimore Sun
Link to The Baltimore Sun first story
Judges’ comments: This entry took sports reporting to another level by examining the financial records to prove that accountability and oversight were lacking. The reporter did a good job chipping away at the story and connecting all of the pieces to achieve measurable results.
- “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom,” by Katherine Eban
Judges’ comments: Eban goes beyond her previous book, “Dangerous Doses: A True Story of Cops, Counterfeiters, and the Contamination of America’s Drug Supply” to uncover the world-wide scandal surrounding the manufacture and marketing of generic pharmaceuticals. Generics, usually less expensive for consumers than brand-name pharmaceuticals, account for about 90 percent of sales in the USA. Eban demonstrates that numerous generics are adulterated with unsanitary material, fail to function in patients as advertised, and sometimes are partially implicated in premature death. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is sometimes part of the scandal, rather than an effective watchdog. During her multi-continent reporting, Eban benefitted from cooperation provided by the Global Investigative Journalism Network and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
“Citizen 865: The Hunt for Hitler’s Hidden Soldiers in America,” by Debbie Cenziper
Judges’ comments: Although the crimes against humanity covered in the book are historical, many of the sleuths seeking justice for the dead are very much contemporary. Cenziper enters the minds of the justice seekers inside and outside government. As the narrative unfolds, Cenziper offers a police procedural beyond the boundaries of usual detective work.
Contest entries are screened and judged by IRE members who are working journalists. Work that includes any significant role by any member of the IRE Contest Committee or the IRE Board may not be entered in the contest. Work in which board members did not play a significant editorial role can be entered. First-round screeners may not review categories in which their news organization could compete.
Serving on the Contest Committee represents a significant sacrifice on the part of the individual contest judge — and often an entire newsroom — that may have done outstanding investigative work. For example, some work from Investigative Reporting Workshop, The Associated Press, NBC4-Washington, the Center for Public Integrity, Voice of OC and The USA TODAY Network was ineligible for entry in this year’s contest. “The judges worked very hard to fairly examine all entries despite many of them having to cover the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” Committee chair Jennifer LaFleur said. “I am so thankful to them for their dedication.”
This year’s contest judges:
- Jennifer LaFleur, Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University (Chair)
- Jodie Fleischer, WRC-TV, NBC4-Washington (Co-chair)
- Carrie Levine, Center for Public Integrity
- Ron Nixon, The Associated Press
- Norberto Santana Jr., Voice of Orange County
- Kameel Stanley, USA Today
- Alison Young, University of Missouri
To ensure fairness and transparency, some judges were not present during deliberations due to potential conflicts of interest. They are:
- Carrie Levine, Center for Public Integrity – Print/Online Division I
- Kameel Stanley, The USA TODAY Network – Print/Online Division I, Print/Online Division IV, IRE Award for Sports Investigations
- Alison Young, University of Missouri-Columbia – Print/Online Division I, Student, Small
IRE, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to training and supporting journalists who pursue investigative stories. IRE also operates the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), a joint program with the Missouri School of Journalism.
For questions or concerns about the IRE Awards please contact Lauren Grandestaff, [email protected], 573-882-6668.