A sophisticated investigation that used machine learning to track hidden evidence connected to the opioid epidemic is the first-place winner in the 2019 Philip Meyer Journalism Awards. Other top awards go to investigations that uncovered substantial fire risks to communities in the West and tracked the causes of a refugee crisis in South Sudan.

“This year’s entries, as they have for several years, reflected a growing sophistication in reporting methods, presentation and transparency,” said Sarah Cohen, a contest judge and the Knight Chair in Data Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. “The selections were more difficult than ever, so the judges focused on projects that could pave the way as exemplary efforts and could be used as models for other projects.”

The 2019 winners are:

First place: “Hidden Injustice,” Reuters

By Benjamin Lesser, Dan Levine, Lisa Girion and Jaimi Dowdell
with additional reporting by Charles Levinson, Charlie Szymanski, Andrea Januta, Nathaniel Okun and Erica Evans

Judges’ comments: For nearly two decades, federal civil courts have without sufficient justification sealed evidence that detailed the role of pharmaceutical companies in the opioid epidemic, a groundbreaking Reuters investigation found. Reuters combined on-the-ground reporting and compelling storytelling with statistical classification methods to quantify the nationwide problem. The team’s approach moved the story beyond anecdotal reporting to establish a link between the hidden evidence and the harm to public health and safety.

The Reuters team developed methodologies using machine learning and natural language processing to identify, classify and quantify cases with sealed court records that can be replicated by other data journalism teams. Reuters analyzed Westlaw data from 3.2 million federal civil suits filed between 2006 and 2016. However, the project’s greater contribution is the solid foundation it gives to any journalist covering a case to push for greater transparency and judicial accountability.

Second place: “Ahead of the Fire,” The Arizona Republic and the USA TODAY Network

By Pamela Ren Larson, Dennis Wagner, Jacy Marmaduke, Zach Urness, Anna Reed, Chris Henry, Sam Metz, Damon Arthur, David Murray, Dianna M. Nanez, Mitchell Thorson, Ryan Marx, Ramon Padilla, Veronica Bravo, Karl Gelles, Shawn Sullivan, Thomas Hawthorne, Timothy Hurst, Kelly Jordan, Anna Reed, Jay Calderon, Omar Ornelas, Mike Chapman, Rion Sanders and Maghen Moore

Judges’ comments: The deadly blaze in Paradise, California in 2018 prompted questions about other communities in the West that also could be in harm’s way. The analysis began with a deep dive into U.S. Forest Service data. But then the team went one step further. Using census data that measured each community’s evacuation routes, the age of its residents, the share of people with disabilities, the percentage of mobile homes and participation in the cellular emergency alert system, the journalists identified 526 small communities across 11 states that faced a wildfire potential greater than Paradise.

The sophisticated graphics and compelling photos helped tell a gripping story that can be replicated in many newsrooms thinking about ways to bring the threat of climate change home to their audiences.

Third place: “Forced Out: Measuring the scale of the conflict in South Sudan,” Al Jazeera, supported by Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, African Defence Review and Code for Africa

By Carolyn Thompson, Kristen van Schie, Lagu Joseph Jackson, Thomas Holder, Anealla Safdar and Mohammed Haddad

Judges’ comments: “Forced Out” used an innovative mobile phone survey to interview thousands of displaced people across South Sudan, and found more than 40 percent reported being forced off their land or out of their homes since December 2013, nearly half at the hands of government soldiers. It’s an outstanding example of a determined group of reporters using social science methods to get to the root causes of a refugee crisis, even with severely limited press freedom, possible government interference and a scared population.

Honorable mention: “Heat and Health in American Cities,” NPR / “Code Red: Baltimore’s Climate Divide,” The Howard Center For Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service at the University Of Maryland with additional work done by WMAR TV and Wide Angle Youth Media

NPR: Meg Anderson, Sean McMinn, Nora Eckert, Nick Underwood, Nicole Beemsterboer, Robert Little, Barbara Van Woerkom and Alyson Hurt

The Howard Center and Capital News Service: Jazmin Conner, Theresa Diffendal, Bryan Gallion, Kaitlyn Hopkins, Dan Novak, Roxanne Ready, Ian Round, Jermaine Rowley, Sandy Banisky, John Fairhall, Sean Mussenden, Amina Lampkin, Maris Medina, Timothy Jacobsen, Camila Velloso, Adam Marton, Krishnan Vasudevan, Jane Gerard, Jake Gluck, Nate Gregorio, Kathy Best, Martin Kaiser, Alex Pyles and Brittany Goodman

Wide Angle Youth Media: Emma Bergman, Katia Crawford, Justice Georgie, Sonia Hug, Justin Marine and Otto Blais-Nelson

Judges’ comments: “Heat and Health in American Cities” was an impressive collaboration between professional journalists at National Public Radio and students at the University of Maryland. It found a link between poverty and the hottest areas in cities. The project built on work done by journalists in California and New York and melded census and weather data, satellite imagery and sensors placed in homes to show the strong relationship between heat and income. The team also showed that extreme heat can lead to “deadly health consequences” in Baltimore by examining high rates of emergency calls and hospital admission rates. The judges were particularly impressed with the student contributions to this project.

The Meyer Award recognizes the best uses of empirical methods in journalism. The awards will be presented on March 7 in New Orleans during the 2020 NICAR Conference. The first-place winner will receive $500; second- and third-place winners 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.

The Meyer Award honors 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.

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

  • Sarah Cohen, Knight Chair in Data Journalism at Arizona State University, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
  • Dana Chinn, lecturer at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism
  • Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • David McKie, Investigative Producer in CBC News’ Parliamentary Bureau
  • Jodi Upton, Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism at Syracuse University

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 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 5,500 members worldwide. 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 between the school and IRE in 1994.

For questions concerning the 2019 Philip Meyer Award winners, please contact:

  • Doug Haddix, IRE Executive Director, doug@ire.org
  • Sarah Cohen, Knight Chair in Data Journalism at Arizona State University, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, sarah.h.cohen@asu.edu