2017 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 2018 IRE Conference in Orlando, Florida on Saturday, June 16.
The highest honor IRE can bestow for investigative reporting is the IRE Medal. This year, there are two medal winners. They are:
“Harassed,” The New York Times, The New York Times staff
Judges’ comments: The New York Times’ reporting exposed a massive story hiding in plain sight and drove a worldwide movement to fight harassment, discrimination and abuse against women. This isn’t just a tale of the famous, rich and powerful — it is about women in all walks of life. You can draw a direct line from the journalism to a cultural moment still sparking scrutiny and action on issues that women have been forced to quietly tolerate and deal with in their professional and personal lives.
“Killing Pavel,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Slidstvo.Info, Anna Babinets, Elena Loginova, Vlad Lavrov, Dmytro Gnap, Matt Sarnecki, Ilya Magazanin, Sergiu Brega, Timmi Allen (Bellingcat)
Judges’ comments: Killing Pavel is a riveting story documenting the murder investigation conducted by OCCRP and Slidstvo.Info to uncover who may have been responsible for the death of a colleague. Journalists showed incredible tenacity and courage by canvassing the scene of the crime, tracking down key witnesses, and digitally analyzing surveillance footage to uncover clues that were previously overlooked by police. Nothing could be more in the spirit of IRE.
Medals are also awarded to winners of two special award categories:
TOM RENNER AWARD
- “From Russia With Blood,” BuzzFeed News, Heidi Blake, Jason Leopold, Tom Warren, Richard Holmes, Jane Bradley, Alex Campbell
Judges’ comments: The Tom Renner Award goes to BuzzFeed News for its deep dive into a series of suspicious suicides in Great Britain and in Washington, D.C., involving two Russian turncoats and three English citizens, that caused the government to open a full investigation. This story has become even more relevant because of the recent nerve-gas poisoning of a spy and his daughter. This investigation turned documents into data and created powerful visualizations, especially reconstruction of the cell phone last held by the murdered central figure. It’s a deeply sourced espionage thriller.
“Libya Slave Auction,” CNN
Judges’ comments: Reporters documented, with concealed cameras, how would-be migrants from central African countries were being auctioned off for work without pay when they lacked money to pay smugglers the full cost of the perilous trip on their way to Europe.
“The Malta Files,” The Black Sea (European Investigative Collaboration Network)
Judges’ comments: Major European corporations were moving their profits to Malta to avoid 80 percent of the taxes they otherwise would pay in their home countries. Reporters exposed the hidden wealth of Turkey’s president and his family.
“Code of Silence,” The Indianapolis Star
Judges’ comments: The paper used detailed reporting of how prosecutions collapse when eyewitnesses to, and surviving victims of, gun violence refuse to testify for fear of their lives. The investigation helped prompt the city government finally to begin a witness protection program.
- “Deadly Decisions,” Malheur Enterprise, Les Zaitz, John Braese, Pat Caldwell
Judges comments: This is a classic David-meets-Goliath triumph. The small staff at this weekly newspaper in Oregon won a public records battle with the state agency that sued the newspaper to block release of documents. The newspaper launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money for a lawyer to defend the journalist. In the end, the documents were released after the governor stepped in. The paper’s tenacity led a public affirmation of the state’s commitment to openness. This work is proof that you don’t need a large staff and deep resources to move the needle on open records.
“Political Staffing and Ethics in the Trump Administration,” ProPublica
Judges comments: ProPublica shined a light on the inner workings of the Trump administration and also created a resource for the public with downloadable data.
“Secret Kansas,” The Kansas City Star
Judges comments: This impactful series held elected leaders accountable and demonstrated the problems caused and/or exacerbated by government secrecy.
“Kept in the Dark,” The Oregonian/Oregon Live
Judges comments: This investigation brought to light Oregon’s outrageous hidden elder-care facility problems through web-scraping and data analysis to create a public resource.
2017 Award winners and finalists by category:
PRINT/ONLINE – Division I
- “Harassed,” The New York Times, The New York Times staff (medal winner)
See judges’ comments under “IRE Medal Winners”
“Trump-Russia Investigation,” The Washington Post
Judges’ comments: Arguably the most important American political story in the modern era with far-reaching ramifications for the world. The Post’s dogged pursuit has resulted in revelations of a presidency that appears to be eroding law and tradition.
“Mexico’s Housing Debacle: A Failed Vision,” Los Angeles Times
Judges’ comments: This series by a single reporter provides a human face to the effects of government corruption hand-in-hand with developers profiting from a nationwide housing scheme.
“The Secret Life of a USC Dean,” Los Angeles Times
Judges’ comments: Starting with only a tip and the first name of a woman who overdosed in a hotel room, the reporters revealed the hidden life of a doctor caught up in a world of drugs, prostitutes and criminal figures.
“Lost Mothers,” ProPublica and NPR
Judges’ comments: This investigation revealed through data and shoe-leather reporting that half of the maternal deaths in the United States are preventable and that there are divergent standards of care, especially for black mothers.
PRINT/ONLINE Division II
- “Quantity of Care,” The Seattle Times, Mike Baker and Justin Mayo
Judges’ comments: In an investigation that relied on more than 200 interviews and 10,000 records from four states, the Seattle Times exposed how one of the city’s most well-respected hospitals prioritized profits over patients. It was mixture of incredible personal narratives and hard-hitting investigative work that held powerful, highly esteemed people to heel, including the hospital’s CEO and a top surgeon, who both resigned. What’s more, their work has had an impact not only in their local community but throughout the health industry.
“Left to Suffer,” Star Tribune
Judges’ comments: An investigation that left us all outraged, with examples of crimes committed against one of the most vulnerable populations and a state system that for many years blatantly ignored what was happening inside its senior care homes.
“Ed Murray Sex-Abuse Allegations,” The Seattle Times
Judges’ comments: A dogged pursuit of long-ago records and persistence paid off with this investigation, which ultimately forced the resignation of a powerful politician.
“Toxic City, Tainted Soil,” Philadelphia Media Network
Judges’ comments: This was an urgent and compelling piece of work that shows how a present-day construction boom in Philadelphia could be risky to children exposed to unsafe levels of lead because of the city’s industrial past.
“Separate and Unequal,” Newsday
Judges’ comments: This was a mammoth undertaking that hit on an undeniable pattern that reflects the ways a community pushed the burden of paying for local government onto poor and minority homeowners.
PRINT/ONLINE — Division III
- “Fostering Failure,” San Francisco Chronicle, Karen de Sá, Cynthia Dizikes, Joaquin Palomino, Leah Millis
Judges’ comments: Few in society need more love and understanding than abused and neglected children. But this heartbreaking story revealed that California shelter workers instead relied on the police to carry out routine discipline. Reading about children as young as 8 being jailed and prosecuted for throwing juice boxes or hot dog buns is both rage-inducing and depressing. It is no surprise that this story led to resignations, investigations and immediate improvements to government programs.
“Fight Club: Dark Secrets of Florida Juvenile Justice,” Miami Herald
Judges’ comments: A stunning use of surveillance videos and internal records helped create a captivating story that revealed the sadistic practices of guards in juvenile lockup who ordered beatings and arranged fights between youths in their care.
“Break the Silence,” The New Zealand Herald
Judges’ comments: Covering suicide is one of the last taboos in journalism, But in New Zealand, it can be illegal. This project dared readers to confront an epidemic and questioned the rationale behind a culture of silence.
PRINT/ONLINE — Division IV
- “Fake Subpoenas,” The Lens, Charles Maldonado, Steve Myers
Judges’ comments: In a category packed with outstanding entries, The Lens’ series on fake subpoenas stood out. It worked relentlessly to show how prosecutors used illegal subpoenas to coerce reluctant crime victims. To find those who received these fakes, reporters posted flyers on the streets and issued public calls. The series exposed decades of illegal practice and led to its end. The ACLU relied upon the reporting in filing a civil rights lawsuit charging that prosecutors had engaged in coercion and civil rights violations.
“Imperial Power Players,” The Desert Sun
Judges’ comments: The Desert Sun combined powerful environmental reporting with follow-the-money instincts to produce a deep, thoroughly reported story on the connections between county water officials and a solar energy firm.
“Coming Clean,” Reading Eagle Co.
Judges’ comments: The Reading Eagle punched above its weight to produce a story about lead contamination that was important to its readers and led to the EPA conducting new testing.
“Renter Hell,” Asbury Park Press
Judges’ comments: This tale of people living in horrific conditions with little recourse was built on deep reporting and records work. The shoe-leather reporting provided insight into life for tenants in heartbreaking detail — and it made an impact.
“Oklahoma Veterans Center Deaths,” Tulsa World
Judges’ comments: The investigation of deaths and rape at a local veterans nursing home hit all the right notes: true outrage, an attempt to keep deaths quiet and exposure of neglect.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division I
- “Killing Pavel,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Slidstvo.Info, Anna Babinets, Elena Loginova,Vlad Lavrov, Dmytro Gnap, Matt Sarnecki, Ilya Magazanin, Sergiu Brega, Timmi Allen (Bellingcat)
See judges’ comments under “IRE Medal Winners”
“The Remington 700,” 60 Minutes
Judges’ comments: This story about rifles discharging without anyone pulling a trigger contains a high outrage factor and achieved real results by helping release a potentially innocent young man from prison.
“Poverty, Politics and Profit,” FRONTLINE and NPR
Judges’ comments: With more working Americans struggling to make rent than at any time since the Great Depression, this series did an amazing job of utilizing an obscure dataset to expose mismanagement of a low-income housing system.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division II
Winners — TIE
- “Big Buses, Bigger Problems: Taxpayers Taken for a Ride,” KXAS/NBC5 Dallas-Fort Worth, Scott Friedman, Eva Parks, Jack Douglas, Jose Sanchez, Frank Heinz, Mark Ginther
Judges’ comments: For years, reporters have chased this complicated story to prove corruption. In 2017, they nailed it, forcing the shutdown of a 100-year-old government agency that had for years bamboozled Dallas County taxpayers. The downfall began with a gamble on a program to sell cameras to catch drivers failing to stop for school buses and ended with a web of entanglements between the bus superintendent and the camera company’s CEO. The story stretched from Dallas to a luxury apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter. This was classic corruption busted wide open.
- “The Drug Whisperer,” WXIA-Atlanta, Brendan Keefe
Judges’ comments: Through dogged reporting and compelling storytelling, this investigation exposed a shocking practice by a suburban police department in the Atlanta area. An officer was “trained” to detect marijuana usage solely by giving drivers an eyeball test. Video showed the officer accusing drivers, often women, of drug abuse and arresting them. After months of legal troubles, each driver in the televised arrests was cleared of any drug use through chemical testing. The stories provoked rage at seeing people arrested and humiliated for no reason. Journalism of the highest quality.
“Sick and Forgotten at Hanford,” KING5 Seattle
Judges’ comments: Heartbreaking stories about deathly sick employees at a plutonium plant being denied workers’ compensation benefits prompted the U.S. government to fire the contractor responsible for assessing the claims.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division III
- “Influence, Infidelity and Men in Power,” WSMV-Nashville, Nancy Amons, Jeremy Finley, Demetria Kalodimos, Jim Garbee, Jason Finley
Judges’ comments: This story had it all: corruption, dead people and more. It was a powerful unearthing of a judge’s secret that never would have been revealed if not for the team, which kept digging, even when faced with personal retribution. Producing more than 60 stories, mostly within two months, the results were staggering: the arrest and resignation of a sitting Nashville judge. The team tirelessly peeled back every shameful layer of corruption, and its work was so important that it was cited in the federal indictment. It is a testament to this team’s dedication. Bravo!
“3,000 Toxic Homes,” WTHR-Indianapolis
Judges’ comments: This crazy story about people buying a former meth lab held people accountable and produced shocking findings. Excellent data analysis.
“Toxic School Water,” WTVF-Nashville
Judges’ comments: This investigation delivers gold-standard accountability interviews, not accepting obfuscation by school officials about hidden tests of lead in drinking water.
BROADCAST/VIDEO — Division IV
- “State of Unrest,” WVUE-New Orleans, Lee Zurik, Jon Turnipseed, Tom Wright, Mike Schaefer, Greg Phillips
Judges’ comments: In a textbook example of watching the watchers, reporters revealed payroll fraud, falsified documents, fixed tickets and padded expenses by the State Police in a yearlong investigation. Resignations, suspensions and criminal investigations quickly followed. In fact, the entire agency was shut down. This was a great example of how journalists can bring video, public records and key interviews together to produce a bulletproof accountability story.
“The BRAVE Fallout,” WAFB-Baton Rouge
Judges’ comments: This began as a small story but ballooned as the reporter unearthed serious problems with a state crime-fighting grant. As a result, contracts were canceled, a mayoral aide resigned and more than $1 million was returned to taxpayers.
RADIO/AUDIO – LARGE
- “They Got Hurt at Work, Then They Got Deported,” NPR and ProPublica, Howard Berkes (NPR), Michael Grabell (ProPublica), Meg Anderson (NPR), Nicole Beemsterboer (NPR), Sarah Betancourt (ProPublica), Graham Bishai (NPR)
Judges’ comments: This series exposed the outrageous hypocrisy of Florida employers who are happy using labor from undocumented workers — until those same people try to claim workers compensation benefits they’re entitled to legally. The reporters revealed how insurance companies targeted these injured workers for denial of benefits, fraud prosecutions and even deportations. They dove into 14 years worth of public records that no one was paying attention to and revealed an obscure loophole in a law that came as a surprise even to legislators.
“How One Sentence Helped Set Off The Opioid Crisis,” The Uncertain Hour, Marketplace
Judges’ comments: This showed the power of journalism that seeks out the ‘origin story’ of a topic many feel like they already know. To get the story, the reporters persuaded a judge to unseal court records.
“All Work, No Pay,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting
Judges’ comments: These reporters did a great job of digging into a sham program that seemed to benefit only the manufacturer and its list of cronies and not the addicts it was supposed to help.
“Chicago Public Schools Secretly Overhauled Special Education at Students’ Expense,” WBEZ Public Radio
Judges’ comments: This was a dogged look at the often opaque and frustrating world of education policy that has real-world effects on families trying to get the best possible outcome for their children.
RADIO/AUDIO – SMALL
- “The Pope’s Long Con,” The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, R.G. Dunlop, Jacob Ryan, Laura Ellis, Brendan McCarthy, Erica Peterson, Stephen George, Sean Cannon, Alexandra Kanik
Judges’ comments: This was a powerful and ultimately heartbreaking entry. The reporting team dug deep into the secret history of State Rep. Danny Ray Johnson, a pastor who referred to himself as the pope of his flock. They unearthed evidence of a long track record of fraud and self-enrichment, including perjury and an insurance scam, and the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl. It had immediate impact, with lawmakers calling for Johnson’s resignation within hours of the story’s publication. Tragically, Johnson took his life days later. Faced with an emotionally wrenching event, KyCIR handled itself with compassion and sensitivity.
“Chemawa Indian School Investigation,” Oregon Public Broadcasting
Judges’ comments: This important story exposed unethical practices at a school for Native American youth in Oregon, including favoritism, grade inflation and whistleblower retaliation.
“A Scar on the System,” WNIN and Side Effects Public Media
Judges’ comments: This was an outrageous investigation of a psychiatrist who may have taken shortcuts on the mental health evaluations of criminal defendants and people seeking disability benefits.
“Louisville Police Don’t Enforce Immigration – But Help The Feds Do It,” Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting
Judges’ comments: Through analysis of police call logs and videos, this investigation proves that Louisville police have lied to the public about their role in immigration raids.
STUDENT – LARGE
- “Crude Power: An Investigation Into Oil, Money and Influence in Saskatchewan,” University of Regina School of Journalism/National Student Investigative Reporting Network, Jennifer Ackerman, Madina Azizi, Janelle Blakley, Cory Coleman, Josh Diaz, Brenna Engel, Céline Grimard, Jared Gottselig, Rebbeca Marroquin, Katie Doke Sawatzky, Michaela Solomon, Kyrsten Stringer, Caitlin Taylor, Michael Wrobel, Trevor Grant, Patricia Elliott
Judges’ comments: This beautifully produced documentary examined the connections between oil, money and influence in the oil-rich province of Saskatchewan. Using documents obtained from nearly two dozen public records requests and links to reports, which officials later removed, and conducting more than 150 interviews, these tenacious first-year journalism students found a cozy relationship between the government and oil industry at the expense of taxpayers. It had huge impact: More whistleblowers came forward, and there’s a call for review of safety lapses.
“Pedestrian Casualties,” Capital News Service
Judges’ comments: This was an ambitious project that felt new and fresh. Good job comparing the University of Maryland community to poorer immigrant communities.
Judges’ comments: This is an issue that has been covered multiple times, but the reporters still found a fresh way to humanize the victims and tell their stories in compelling and interesting ways.
“HookedRX: From Prescription to Addiction,” Cronkite News
Judges’ comments: This thoroughly reported series takes a good look at the enablers of the opioid epidemic, rather than just at the victims/survivors. Excellent production and storytelling, clearly connects local findings to the national epidemic.
STUDENT – SMALL
- “Sexual Assault Evidence Backlog,” The Columbia Missourian, Anna Brett, Katherine Reed
Judges’ comments: Investigating a failure of law enforcement and hospitals to test sexual assault DNA evidence kits is tough subject matter for even a seasoned reporter. This investigation, unearthed numbers that nobody knew, or wanted to know. It had immediate impact, forcing the state to do its own audit of the backlog. The story also starkly illustrated its importance with the personal story of a woman whose rape kit was eventually tested and led to an arrest.
Judges’ comments: With tuition fees everywhere on the rise, the reporters worked diligently to investigate lack of accountability in a multi-million-dollar education system and promote transparency on their own campus
INVESTIGATIONS TRIGGERED BY BREAKING NEWS
- “Semaj Crosby,” Chicago Tribune, David Jackson, Gary Marx, Duaa Eldeib, Alicia Fabbre, Stacey Wescott
Judges comments: In the days and weeks following the death of a Chicago toddler, reporters broke a series of stories that exposed the dysfunction at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, including unexcusable government failures in the management of Crosby’s case. The stories were gut-wrenching and remarkably well-told and led to state investigations of the agency. The reporters told the larger truth about a problem that, for years, was hiding in plain sight.
“Flooding at Toxic Waste Sites,” The Associated Press
Judges comments: Impressive enterprise, showing plenty of legwork and use of historical EPA reports to expose possible contamination at chemical sites after flooding caused by hurricanes.
“Wine Country Fires,” San Francisco Chronicle
Judges comments: The Chronicle turned what otherwise was a national disaster story into an accountability story that had impact. Federal authorities made upgrades to the emergency alert system, and California began working toward a statewide alert system.
- “Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University Amid College Football’s Sexual Assault Crisis,” Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach
Judges’ comments: The judges found every chapter of “Violated” revelatory with its deep dive into university campus sexual assault, its compelling writing and its link to the authors’ beat reporting for ESPN. Many universities wrestle with the assaults of women by high-profile athletes, but Lavigne and Schlabach documented that Baylor University deserved focused attention due to a number of factors: the hypocrisy about male-female relationships at a conservative Baptist university, the prominence of the university president, the cover-ups and the long-term existence of the criminal behavior. Not at all incidentally, the authors captured the destroyed lives of the victimized women.
“The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives,” Jesse Eisinger
Judges’ comments: Understanding why the U.S. Department of Justice refuses to prosecute monstrous corporate executives as individuals has remained a puzzle throughout U.S. history. Jesse Eisinger delves into the machinery of collusion and cowardice, whether Democrats or Republicans control the Justice Department and White House.
GANNETT AWARD FOR INNOVATION IN WATCHDOG JOURNALISM
- “Paradise Papers: Secrets of the Global Elite,” The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The New York Times, The Guardian and more than 90 media partners
Judges’ comments: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ “Paradise Papers” exhibited extraordinary innovation in exposing the secret tax machinations of some of the world’s most powerful people and corporations. The judges selected ICIJ for its technological prowess in making a vast cache of records usable for reporters spread across the world, its ethos of “radical collaboration” and the broad impact of the resulting stories, which prompted investigations and changes in tax policy in several countries. The consortium was lauded for breaking the boundaries of investigative journalism with the Panama Papers, but this project went beyond even that. ICIJ used reverse-engineering techniques to reconstruct corporate databases, used algorithms to draw out people and organizations of interest, and further developed its platform to allow reporters to search within and across datasets and visualize the connections among people and business entities. To top it off, ICIJ has made its software code and large stores of data available to the public.
Contest entries are screened and judged by IRE members who are working or retired journalists. Work that includes any significant role by any member of the IRE Contest Committee or the IRE Board president may not be entered in the contest. IRE Board members who do not serve as judges may enter their work. 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 The Columbus Dispatch, Raycom Media, NerdWallet, The New York Times, ProPublica, NBC Bay Area, St. Louis Public Radio and The Washington Post was ineligible for entry in this year’s contest.
This year’s contest judges:
- Jill Riepenhoff, Raycom Media – Chair
- Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times
- Saleem Khan, INVSTG8.NET
- T. Christian Miller, ProPublica
- Kevin Nious, NBC Bay Area
- Jim Polk, formerly of CNN
- Kameel Stanley, St. Louis Public Radio
- Cheryl W. Thompson, The George Washington University and The Washington Post
To ensure fairness and transparency, some judges were not present during deliberations due to potential conflicts of interest. They are:
- Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times, T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Cheryl W. Thompson, The Washington Post – Print/Online Division I
- Saleem Khan, independent journalist – Broadcast/Video Division I
- T. Christian Miller, ProPublica – FOI Award
- T. Christian Miller, ProPublica – Radio – Large
- T. Christian Miller, ProPublica – Investigations Triggered by Breaking News
- Jill Riepenhoff, Raycom Media – Broadcast/Video Divisions III and IV
IRE, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to training and supporting journalists who pursue investigative stories, and it operates the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, a joint program of IRE and the Missouri School of Journalism.
For questions or concerns about the IRE Awards please contact Lauren Grandestaff, firstname.lastname@example.org, 573-882-6668.