Investigations that revealed the story of Florida employees poisoned while trying to earn a paycheck, uncovered the deaths of those working in scorching heat across the country and scrutinized the role of race and inequality in society are among the recipients of the 2021 Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards.
“The winners of the 2021 IRE Awards not only represent the best of the best in investigative journalism, but they serve as a true reflection of why our work is so critical right now,” said Zaneta Lowe, chair of the IRE Awards contest committee. “We saw powerful storytelling, projects with immediate impact and pieces that served as a true public service to their communities. This year's winners also included student work that made me proud to see where our industry is headed. Congratulations to the winners and finalists!”
This year’s winners were selected from more than 500 entries. The awards, given since 1979, recognize the most outstanding watchdog journalism of the year. The contest covers 17 categories across media platforms and a range of market sizes.
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“The Secret IRS Files,” ProPublica, Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen, Paul Kiel, Justin Elliott, James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Robert Faturechi, Ellis Simani, Doris Burke, Agnes Chang and Lucas Waldron
Judges’ comments: This investigation made a once-in-a-lifetime leak of tax returns accessible through meticulous reporting and plain language and graphics. The reporters exposed the creative ways the world’s richest people amass unparalleled wealth while paying virtually no taxes. The historic effort revealed gross absurdities and inequities of the tax system, prompting a global conversation about possible reforms.
- “Airstrikes Gone Wrong,” The New York Times, The Staff of The New York Times
- “Hidden Interests,” The Wall Street Journal
“Poisoned,” Tampa Bay Times with the support of PBS Frontline, Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington, Eli Murray
“Poisoned” was an extraordinary and incredibly focused investigation.The data was difficult to acquire and piece together, making this investigation a step above the rest. On top of the stunning journalism, the lengths that these reporters took to get the certifications was remarkable and made it rise to the level of an IRE Medal. The judges were left speechless. Outstanding!
- “After Hours: Fostering Chaos,” KING5 Seattle
- "Unsettled: Cashing in on Accident Victims,” Minneapolis Star Tribune
- "State On Fire," The California Newsroom
“Wires and Fires,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA Today Network, Raquel Rutledge, John Diedrich, Daphne Chen
Judges’ comments: This project exposed a scourge in the poorest areas of Milwaukee: No one was investigating who was to blame for deadly fires that were caused by hazardous wiring. The project explored how powerful business interests, particularly landlords and developers, had weakened laws that would have better protected tenants from dying in fires at rental properties. The compelling visuals also showed exactly how to detect signs of hazardous wiring. The judges were particularly impressed with a consultant commissioned by the Journal Sentinel to spot-check the safety of rental properties in fire-prone areas – something the city itself had never done.
- "A labor camp, a Super 8 and a long bus ride home,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- “Windsor mayor investigation,” San Francisco Chronicle
“Death Sentence,” The Indianapolis Star, Tim Evans, Ryan Martin, Robert Scheer and Ko Lyn Cheang
Judges’ comments: The Star’s work in “Death Sentence” shines a glaring light on what’s happening behind bars in Indiana’s jails. The fact that the team took on the task of counting deaths and piecing together an entire system, which hadn’t been done before, allows the work to stand out. The investigation also goes beyond accountability by examining solutions and offering information to the public, allowing people to find out what’s happening in jails in their communities. From the innocent people harmed and the impact on their families, to the perspective from law enforcement willing to go on record..the Indy Star weaved together personal stories and data, which made people care, and that was powerful.
- "Uncovered," The Post and Courier
- “Secrets of the Death Chamber,” The State
“The Island of Secrets,” Al Jazeera Media Network, Al Jazeera I Unit
Judges’ comments: This was compelling visual storytelling by Al Jazeera that merged satellite imagery and shipping data to tell a more complete story about how the Indian government has been transforming a remote Mauritian island. The investigative team focused on data to definitively answer lingering questions about what was happening to the island. Journalists also overcame technical challenges to access information from the island. That included obtaining pictures and videos that more clearly showed the island’s infrastructure transformation over time. Al Jazeera also elevated the voices of island residents to shed light on the potential human ramifications.
- “Broken Medical Boards,” CBS Mornings
“The GAP: Failure to Treat, Failure to Protect,” KARE11, Brandon Stahl, A.J. Lagoe, Steve Eckert, Gary Knox, Ron Stover
Judges’ comments: This project revealed a stunning exception in the adjudication process that allowed profoundly mentally ill individuals who were charged with crimes to be released without appropriate care and supervision. In more than a hundred cases the state couldn’t track, these individuals would be charged with other crimes — including murder.
- "Politically Charged," ABC15 Arizona
- “Aundrea's Final Ride: A Culture In Question," KMGH Denver7
“Failure Factory,” Fox45 News, Baltimore, Carolyn Peirce, Chris Papst, Jed Gamber, Dwayne Myers, Ray Rogowski
Judges’ comments: Working off a tip from a stunned parent, Project Baltimore was able to shed light on how Baltimore City Public Schools failed to educate students while mismanaging funds. Between confirming "ghost students" and going beyond the publicly available data many stated was flawed, they were able to penetrate a system and develop relationships with sources to prove what had been happening - unnoticed - inside Augusta Fells Savage High School for years. When Fox45 initially broke the story in March 2021, City Schools tried to downplay the significance of the findings. However, after an internal investigation, they too confirmed Fox45's reporting. The Maryland State Department of Education even announced City Schools may have to pay back money that it received in 2019 to educate students who were not in school at Augusta Fells.
- “Utah's Parole Supervision Failure,” KUTV 2 News Salt Lake City
- “Attention to the Details,” WVUE-New Orleans
“The Death of Jamal Sutherland,” WCSC Charleston, Raphael James, Lisa Weismann, Nick Reagan, Katie Kamin, Thomas Gruel, Jennifer Dale, Carter Coyle, Jared Kofsky, Katilin Stansell, Rob Way, Live 5 News Staff
Judges’ comments: The story of Jamal Sutherland was compelling and emotional. The level of detail that Live 5 took to tell this story was incredible, talk about punching above your weight! Dogged reporting at its best – the importance of this story was demonstrated in the number of resources and amount of time the team dedicated to the project.
- “Breakdown: The Frontline Response to the Mental Health Crisis,” KSLA - Shreveport
- "Dangerous Pursuits," KARK - Little Rock
“Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, Al Letson, Jonathan Jones, Kevin Sullivan, Michael I Schiller, Steven Rascón, Amy Mostafa, Sarah Mirk, Rosemarie Ho, Nikki Frick, Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery, Laurel Hennen Vigil, Melissa Lewis, Jim Briggs, Fernando Arruda, Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Kathryn Styer Martinez
Judges’ comments: Through its compelling storytelling, interviews and years-long reporting, Reveal raises serious questions and ultimately casts doubt on the death investigation of Billey Joe Johnson. The team managed to obtain records in a state notorious for keeping them secret, which was just the start of what their investigation unraveled. Hearing the medical examiner admit, on record, that the case could now be viewed through a different lens was major. Ultimately though, while the focus of “Mississippi Goddam” may have been Johnson’s case, the team manages to tell a much bigger story about systemic racism in America. From beginning to end, the episodes reflects upon ugly truths of the past that continue to impact the present, revealing how race continues to play a role in the criminal justice system in our country.
- “Hot Days: Heat’s Mounting Death Toll On Workers In The U.S.” NPR, The California Newsroom, The Texas Newsroom, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Public Health Watch, Cheryl W. Thompson and Robert Benincasa (NPR); Jacob Margolis and Adriene Hill (The California Newsroom); Stella M. Chavez, Sara Willa Ernst, Dominic Walsh and Fernanda Camarena (The Texas Newsroom); Julia Shipley, David Nickerson, Brian Edwards, Cascade Tuholske and Kristen Lombardi (Columbia Journalism Investigations); Kim Krisberg and Jim Morris (Public Health Watch)
Judges’ comments: Outstanding collaboration and compilation of stories uncovering the dangers workers face outside in the heat from just doing their job. The team does a superb job of explaining the multiple levels of failures. From OSHA and its soft penalties and lack of inspection, to the companies that hire these men and women, and ultimately the federal government which could set the standard with a law. In fact, establishing that there’s no regulatory standard for heat in the workplace was revelatory! Furthermore, with a warming planet and climate change, this is an issue workers will continue to face, which makes such an investigation even more critical.
- “There Is Anger. He Should Be Alive,” KQED
“Dig: The Model City,” Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and Newsy, Eleanor Klibanoff Carrie Cochran, Karen Rodriguez, Maia Rosenfeld, Maren Machles, Kate Howard, Laura Ellis, Ellen Weiss, Rosie Cima, Mark Fahey, Zach Cusson, Mai Nolasco-Carranza, J. Tyler Franklin, Chelsae Ketchum
Judges’ comments: “The Model City” placed listeners at the center of how the city of Louisville failed to reform its police department despite participation in a key federal program. Relying on records and extensive interviews with local officials and residents, KyCIR transported listeners to multiple environments to better understand how far the city’s public commitment had unraveled. The focus on community voices also captured a collective grief that highlighted how much is at stake with future policy actions.
- “Behind The Blue Wall: Officers Describe A ‘Toxic’ Culture Within Metro Police,” WPLN News/Nashville Public Radio
“Printing Hate,” The University of Maryland - Howard Center for Investigative Journalism
Judges’ comments: As the mainstream media reckons with its racist past, this collaborative project went well-beyond any of those efforts to show the complicity of newspapers in race-based violence by creating a permanent archive of the very hate-filled pages. In an interactive database and presentation and through more than a dozen stories of the lives lost, this effort ensures that this history is not tucked away in an archive and forgotten. The judges quickly realized this project was IRE Medal-worthy.
- “Little Victims Everywhere,” Howard Center for Investigative Journalism - Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
- “Unmasking America,” News21
“The COVID-19 Money Trail,” The Daily Targum, Hayley Slusser, Madison McGay, Chloe Tai
Judges’ comments: Student work at its finest… landing an investigation that reveals wrongdoing, prompts public scrutiny, leads to reforms, and has meaningful impact. This caliber of work is among what you’d see in a professional paper. Impressive.
- “Alumni allege history of inappropriate conduct with female students by Princeton professor Joshua Katz,” The Daily Princetonian
“National Women's Soccer League,” The Washington Post, Molly Hensley-Clancy
Judges’ comments: A comprehensive look at a system of abuse inside the world of American women’s soccer at a time when the sport is growing in popularity. The Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy revealed allegations of verbal and emotional abuse within the National Women’s Soccer League and the inaction of its governing body. Through interviews with current and former players, Hensley-Clancy offered readers a glimpse at a culture of silence and questionable labor practices.
- “Courtney's Story,” Defector
- “What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol,” ProPublica
Judges’ comments: A massive undertaking of data collection that uniquely captured the Jan. 6 insurrection from a wide range of vantage points. ProPublica’s exhaustive review of riot-related videos resulted in a unique interactive that provided the public with an early archive of history — work that would later be cited in criminal affidavits and Donald Trump’s impeachment hearing.
-”Unprepared: Texas Winter Storm 2021,” The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, Jolie McCullough, Duncan Agnew, Erin Douglas, Kate McGee, Jeremy Schwartz, Kiah Collier, Vianna Davila
Judges’ comments: The team’s coverage of a large winter storm was not just hard-hitting accountability journalism, it was public service at its best. A team of journalists worked under difficult personal conditions to provide Texas residents with basic information about their health and safety while also combating misinformation from public officials about the cause of the resulting power outages.
- “No Escape Plan,” Houston Chronicle
“The Hidden Tab," Spotlight PA & The Caucus, Angela Couloumbis, Sam Janesch, Brad Bumsted, Mike Wereschagin and Sarah Anne Hughes
Judges’ comments: “Hidden Tab” demonstrated the true cost of government! Spotlight PA and The Caucus executed a multi-layered FOIA strategy to develop something that hadn’t been done before, and ultimately revealed the myriad of ways in which state legislators spend millions of tax dollars in questionable ways. Furthermore, they highlighted a dynamic that people don’t often think about in the per diem. The team’s work included bi-partisan reaction and a powerful solutions aspect in the form of what the legislature could do to be more transparent in the future, which could also lead to change. The team’s exhaustive process and method in which they leveraged FOIA fundamentally “opened government” and that’s a true example of what this type of reporting should look like.
- “Board lessens punishment in Title IX inquiry,” Madison County Record
- “Battling police secrecy in Alabama,” AL.com
“The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe,” The Outlaw Ocean Project and The New Yorker magazine, Ian Urbina
Judges’ comments: This project showed how European nations attempt to curb immigration from Africa in dozens of languages and multiple formats, ensuring it was widely accessible not only to those who participate in the system but those who are subject to it, serving as a warning. The team took great personal risk in this investigation, as they were literally kidnapped.
- “Beatings, bigotry and cover-ups at the Louisiana State Police,” Associated Press
- "Pandora Papers," International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Washington Post, Miami Herald and nearly 150 other media partners around the world
“Code of Silence - Sexual Misconduct by Federal Judges, the Secret System that Protects Them, and the Women who Blew the Whistle,” Lise Olsen
Judges' comments: With few public records and reluctant sources, the judges were impressed with how much Olsen was able to publish on previously undisclosed judicial sexual misconduct at the federal level. Her detailed writing educates the reader on just how hard it is for survivors to speak up about workplace sexual harassment and assault, particularly when the perpetrator enforces justice.
“Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance,” Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block
Contest entries are screened and judged by IRE members who are working journalists. Work that includes a 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.
This year’s contest judges:
To ensure fairness and transparency, some judges were not present during deliberations in specific categories due to potential conflicts of interest. They are:
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, 573-882-6668.
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