There is only one more week until the Nov. 2 postmark deadline for the Philip Meyer contest, and we want to see your work.

The Philip Meyer Journalism Award recognizes stories that incorporate survey research, probabilities and other social science tools in creative ways that lead to journalism vital to the community.

Established in 2005, the awards were created to honor Philip Meyer’s pioneering efforts to utilize social science research methods to foster better journalism.

 As final applications are readied for this year’s contest, take a look at previous winners.

2011

FIRST PLACE

Murder Mysteries,” Scripps Howard News Service
Staff: Thomas Hargrove

The Scripps Howard News Service “Murder Mysteries” series is a sterling example of the power of precision journalism to find revealing patterns in data. Thomas Hargrove began the project by wondering if the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report could be used to detect the work of serial killers among the nation’s more than 185,000 unsolved murders. He first discovered that local police failed to report thousands of murders to the FBI and spent months using Freedom of Information laws to gather details of more than 15,000 unlogged murders across the country. After building what experts say is the most complete database of unsolved murders available, Hargrove developed a unique algorithm that used the statistical technique of cluster analysis to identify the likely traces of serial murders, as marked by victims of similar demographics killed by similar means. Police in at least eight cities have acknowledged that the clusters found by Hargrove are either confirmed serial cases or are likely to be such. The database was placed online so readers could do their own interactive analysis of local murders, and the entire dataset is available for anyone to download and explore. At least one armchair detective has used the data to find a cluster that police in his area agree is the work of a heretofore unacknowledged serial killer.

SECOND PLACE

Testing the System,” USA Today
Staff: Marisol Bello, Jack Gillum, Linda Mathews, Greg Toppo, Jodi Upton and Dennis Cauchon, (USA Today); Denise Amos (Cincinnati Enquirer); Chastity Pratt Dawsey, Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki and Kristi Tanner-White (Detroit Free Press); Anne Ryman (The Arizona Republic)

USA Today’s “Testing the System” project examined the chronic problem of schools cheating on standardized tests. Taking their analysis to a national level, the team of reporters and database editors laboriously gathered and cleaned at least five years of test score data and answer-erasure rates for six states and the District of Columbia. Using linear regression and analysis of variance, schools with suspiciously huge gains in scores were identified as statistically unlikely outliers and used as leads for on-the-ground reporting. The series has prompted a federal Department of Education investigation into the testing practices of D.C. schools and a tightening of the security around testing.

THIRD PLACE:

Tale of Three Cities: Foreclosures Don’t Always Follow the Script,” The Seattle Times and ProPublica
Staff: Sanjay Bhatt (The Seattle Times); Jennifer LaFleur (ProPublica)

“Tale of Three Cities,” a joint project of The Seattle Times and ProPublica, challenged common stereotypes about home mortgage foreclosures by analyzing and comparing the demographic and financial patterns of foreclosures in three fundamentally different cities: Seattle, Baltimore and Phoenix. The reporters identified a randomly selected sample of 400 foreclosures from each of the cities, and then with considerable shoe-leather reporting gathered details for each case covering deeds, promissory notes, prior bankruptcies and the aftermath of the foreclosure. Analysis of the resulting database showed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, only about a quarter of foreclosure cases involved loans that could be considered as predatory, and that in more than half of the foreclosures, the homeowners were able to keep their homes after lenders agreed to loan modifications.

 

2010

FIRST PLACE

Grading the Teachers“, The 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 Frustrating Search for Justice“, 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.

2009

FIRST PLACE

The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools“, USA Today
Staff: Blake Morrison and Brad Heath

In “The Smokestack Effect”, USA Today reporters Blake Morrison and Brad Heath used techniques from social and physical sciences to examine the levels of air pollution at schools across the country. They gathered tens of millions of air quality and industrial pollution records and the locations of nearly 128,000 schools, then used the Environmental Protection Agency’s own pollution model to identify thousands of schools where the air was far more toxic than in nearby neighborhoods. USA Today teams also spent weeks gathering air samples at 95 schools in 30 states, proving high pollution levels at two-thirds of them. The stories prompted immediate action from the EPA, including creation of a $2.25 million program to monitor air quality at schools.

SECOND PLACE

MRSA: Culture of Resistance“, The Seattle Times
Staff: Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong

Using an ingenious data analysis approach, The Seattle Times exposed a shocking increase in Washington hospitals of the cases of the drug resistant germ MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphloccus aureus) – and the state inspection system that allowed it to happen. The reporters used state death records and patient-discharge data (which contained no specific code for MRSA) to stitch together a way to identify and track the incidents of MRSA at individual hospitals. They also analyzed state inspection records and did a survey of hospitals to illuminate problems and cases.

THIRD PLACE

Compromised Care“, The Chicago Tribune
Staff: Reporters David Jackson, Gary Marx and Sam Roe, and Web applications and data management by Brian Boyer, Joe Germuska and Ryan Mark.

This project began with curiosity and concern about a news brief reporting that a 69-year old woman in an Illinois nursing home had been raped by another resident – a 21-year old psychiatric patient with a history of violence. The subsequent investigation revealed dangerous systemic failures to protect elderly patients in Illinois nursing homes that have been used increasingly to house mentally ill younger residents, including murderers, sex offenders, and armed robbers. Trends were detected by making connections between records and datasets from a wide variety of sources. An interactive Web site allows users to explore the records of individual nursing homes. The project has prompted ongoing state and federal action to curb abuses.

HONORABLE MENTION

Perfectly Legal“, The Arizona Republic
Staff: Robert Anglen, Ryan Konig, Andrew Long and David Fritze

This four-day series exposed a system in which 22 charities and dozens of affiliates moved $130 million among themselves while often performing little charitable work. The newspaper’s team combined traditional investigative reporting with social network analysis of thousands of documents to track the money from the U.S. through Canada, England, the Philippines and South America.

 

2008

FIRST PLACE

 “Saving Babies: Exposing Sudden Infant Death,” Scripps Howard News Service
Staff: Tom Hargrove, Lee Bowman and Lisa Hoffman

Scripps Howard national reporters Tom 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. Sen. Barack Obama introduced national legislation that would require medical examiners to make death scene investigations in all cases of unexpected infant death.

SECOND PLACE

“Fatal Failures,” The Kansas City Star
Staff: Mike Casey and 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 non-deploying 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 kind of techniques Phil 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

“Too Tough: Tactics in Suburban Policing,” The Philadelphia Inquirer
Staff: Mark Fazlollah, Dylan Purcell, Melissa Dribben and 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 like loitering or jaywalking. Their followup reporting uncovered jails where thousands of illegal strip searches were being done, police dogs being used to control black children walking home from school, and traffic citations that were filled out in advance of arrests.

2007

FIRST PLACE

“Faking the Grade,” The Dallas Morning News
Staff: Joshua Benton and Holly Hacker 

A three-day series that uncovered strong evidence of cheating on standardized tests by more than 50,000 students in Texas public and charter schools. Reporters Joshua Benton and Holly Hacker followed up on the paper’s groundbreaking 2004 investigation of cheating at the district and school level by analyzing a huge public records database of the scores and answers of hundreds of thousands of individual students taking the tests over a two-year period. The series prompted the state to announce stricter controls over test-taking conditions in Texas schools, and to adopt the cheat-detection statistical methods used by the paper.

SECOND PLACE

“A Matter of Life and Death,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Staff:  Bill Rankin, Heather Vogell, Sonji Jacobs and Megan Clarke

A four-day package of stories that documented how Georgia has failed to follow through on capital punishment reforms promised after the U.S. Supreme court ruled in 1972 that the state’s application of the death penalty was “arbitrary and capricious.” Reporters Bill Rankin, Heather Vogell, Sonji Jacobs and database specialist Megan Clarke led a team that hand-built a database of more than 2,300 murder convictions since 1995 by traveling to more than 100 of the state’s 159 county courthouses and researcher Alice Wertheim created a database of all Georgia Supreme Court death penalty decisions since 1982. They analyzed this data with multiple regression analysis to demonstrate wide variations in application of the death penalty by demographics and geography, prompting the Legislature to consider changes in the capital punishment laws and the state’s chief justice to take steps to improve its review of such cases.

THIRD PLACE

“Insurance: Service or Shenanigans,” The Kansas City Star
Staff: Mike Casey, Mark Morris and David Klepper

A three-day series of stories and follow-ups that used a national consumer complaints database of nearly 35 million records to rate more than 2,400 insurance companies by complaint ratios. Reporters Mike Casey, Mark Morris and David Klepper spent nearly a year gathering and analyzing the national data along with more than 10,000 pages of records to demonstrate how responsiveness to consumer concerns varied widely by company, geography and type of coverage. Since the project ran, state and national legislators have called for a number of measures to address problems documented in the paper’s analysis.

2006

FIRST PLACE

“Perfect Payday” The Wall Street Journal 
Staff: Charles Forelle and James Bandler

A series of articles over the past year that exposed the widespread practice of secretly backdating stock option grants to benefit corporate insiders. Lead writers Charles Forelle and James Bandler used a statistical model to calculate the wildly improbable odds that options grant dates would just happen to be so favorably profitable to dozens of executives at some of the nation’s best-known companies. Their stories about the scandal have spurred an ongoing federal securities investigation into rigged options at more than 100 companies to date.

SECOND PLACE

“Special Report: Rating Hospital Health Care” Gannett News Service
Staff: Robert Benincasa and Jennifer Brooks 

An investigative package that rated more than 3,000 U.S. hospitals on how well they followed recommended medical guidelines for treating heart attack and heart failure patients. The stories by database editor Robert Benincasa and reporter Jennifer Brooks showed that patients in poor and rural areas were less likely to receive the recommended care. Their analysis took a national dataset detailing the treatments given to each patient and used a composite scoring methodology to rate each hospital.

THIRD PLACE

“Camden Schools Investigation” The Philadelphia Inquirer
Staff: Melanie Burney, Frank Kummer and Dwight Ott

A series of stories that uncovered a cheating scandal in the standardized testing being used by the Camden, N.J., school district. The stories by reporters Melanie Burney, Frank Kummer and Dwight Ott revealed that test scores in several Camden schools were dramatically higher that would be expected based on past performance, and ultimately led to the resignation of the district superintendent, an investigation, and strict monitoring by the state department of education.

2005

FIRST PLACE

“Unnecessary Epidemic,” The Oregonian
Staff: Steve Suo 

A series of articles over the past year showing how Congress and the Drug Enforcement Administration could have stopped the growth of meth abuse by aggressively regulating the import of the chemicals necessary to make it. Lead reporter Steve Suo’s work included sophisticated statistical analyses of data on hospital and treatment center admissions, arrests, meth prices and purity, and chemical imports.

SECOND PLACE

“Discharged and Dishonored,” The Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau
Staff: Chris Adams and Alison Young

A year-long series of stories that revealed how disabled veterans were being harmed by the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Reporters Chris Adams and Alison Young analyzed survey data and the VA’s own database of 3.4 million claims to discover that more than 13,700 veterans died while waiting for their claims to be resolved, and as many as 572,000 vets may be missing out on their rightful disability payments.

THIRD PLACE

“Vanishing Wetlands,” The St. Petersburg Times
Staff: Matthew Waite and Craig Pittman 

A project that demonstrated that 84,000 acres of Florida wetlands have been destroyed by development since 1990 when President George H. W. Bush declared a national policy of no net loss of wetlands. Reporters Matthew Waite and Craig Pittman penetrated beyond the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ poorly-documented records of development permits by using before-and-after satellite imagery and geographical information systems software to accurately measure the loss.