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2016 Award Winners

Philip Meyer Award

The Philip Meyer Journalism Award recognizes the best journalism done using social research methods.
First Place

Doctors & Sex Abuse” | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jeff Ernsthausen, Shawn McIntosh, Danny Robbins, Carrie Teegardin, Ariel Hart, Richard Watkins, Ryon Horne, Lois Norder, Johnny Edwards, and Alan Judd

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The newspaper took data analysis for a story to new levels of sophistication. The goal was to root out instances in which doctors had abused patients and gone unpunished, but the task was more than daunting. The team built 50 scrapers to pull in more than 100,000 documents. They then used machine learning to analyze all of those documents, searching for keywords that alluded to cases of sexual misconduct. They backed up their findings with other sophisticated data analysis and shoe-leather reporting. The sheer scope of their project was impressive. What was even more impressive were the results. The investigation found that doctors in every state had abused patients, and even when caught, still went unpunished.

Second Place

How Fire Feeds” | Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Eric Sagara, Scott Pham, Sinduja Rangarajan and Julia Smith

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The team used satellite imagery and eight other government data sets to examine three large wildfires in creative, groundbreaking ways. An interactive, visually appealing online presentation guided readers through the analysis, enabling them to explore how fire and topography intersect to create deadly blazes. More than 170,000 acres burned during the fires, leaving the areas vulnerable to flooding and erosion. The project provided a cautionary tale of potential wildfire outbreaks that may pose ongoing risk for years to come.

Third Place

The Tennis Racket” | BuzzFeed News and the BBC

Heidi Blake and John Templon of BuzzFeed News, and Simon Cox of the BBC

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In a first-of-its-kind analysis by a media outlets, BuzzFeed News and the BBC used a million simulations of a series of tennis matches to discover suspicious patterns in shifting betting odds and players who lost matches they statistically shouldn’t have. What emerged was a pattern of match fixing among a small group of professional tennis players. During the reporting, a whistleblower shared with BuzzFeed the results of a professional tennis internal investigation that found similar patterns, but the sport shelved the investigation and did nothing. As a result of the investigation, professional tennis stars have called for greater transparency in corruption investigations surrounding the sport, and several government entities have conducted hearings.

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

  • Rose Ciotta, Associate Editor at EdSource
  • Robert Gebeloff, Database Projects Editor at The New York Times
  • Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • David McKie, Investigative Producer in CBC News’ Parliamentary bureau
  • Cheryl Phillips, Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor in Professional Journalism at Stanford University
  • Jodi Upton, Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism Professor at Syracuse University
  • Matt Waite, Professor of Practice at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Golden Padlock

The Golden Padlock Award recognizes the most secretive publicly-funded agency or person in the United States.


The VA was selected for this honor for withholding records about the qualifications of medical staff who evaluated thousands of veterans for potential brain injuries following service to their country. When TEGNA TV stations across the U.S. formally requested the information, VA hospitals withheld the names, board certifications and medical specialties of doctors performing the exams, saying release of the information “would not contribute to the public’s understanding of the Federal Government.” Kare11 in Minneapolis first obtained records showing many potential brain injuries were evaluated by staff whose qualifications did not meet the VA’s own requirements, potentially missing cases of injuries that can trigger additional benefits for veterans. Following an internal investigation, the VA now acknowledges 25,000 veterans across the country had their brain injury diagnoses performed by doctors who were not qualified to make those diagnoses. TEGNA is currently in the process of appealing the agency’s public disclosure denials.

  • The Massachusetts Supervisor of Public Records Shawn Williams and Secretary of State William F. Galvin
  • The U. S. Department of Defense Office of Freedom of Information
  • Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE/“Bessie”)
  • The City of El Paso

To learn more about each agency, click here.

IRE Award

Winners & finalists by category

Print/Online - Large

Suffering in Secret,” Chicago Tribune, Michael J. Berens, Patricia Callahan.
View this story online

Judges’ comments: The strategy seemed simple: the state of Illinois would save money by directing thousands of low-income, disabled, and often defenseless, residents to less expensive private group homes. But what the Chicago Tribune uncovered in “Suffering in Secret” was a system that allowed many of the state’s most vulnerable to be mistreated. Through databases, court records, investigative files, emails and other public records, the reporters told a story that was heartbreaking, troubling and sorely needed. And beautifully written.


Print/Online - Medum

Doctors & Sex Abuse,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Danny Robbins, Carrie Teegardin, Ariel Hart, Jeff Ernsthausen, Ryon Horne, Richard Watkins, Lois Norder, Alan Judd, Johnny Edwards.
View this story online

Judges’ comments: After noticing a pattern in Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters expanded their investigation to unveil systemic sex abuse of patients by their doctors in every state. In a project reminiscent of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, the reporters combined sophisticated research techniques with shoe-leather and public records reporting and found that the medical profession views sexual abuse as an illness to be treated, rather than a crime to be punished. They found some doctors with hundreds of victims and a profession that has resisted actions that could prevent and detect abuse.


Print/Online - Small

Failing the Frail,” Patriot-News, Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, David Wenner, Nick Malawskey, Sean Simmers.
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Judges’ comments: PennLive uncovered major failures with the quality of Pennsylvania’s nursing homes and oversight of the industry. PennLive discovered dozens of avoidable deaths: a diabetic resident who wasn’t given insulin, a resident with Down syndrome who died after his ventilator became disconnected and staff didn’t respond to the alarm for nearly an hour. State investigations appear to be flawed and punishments are typically weak or non-existent. This compelling, thorough and well-written investigation overcame many obstacles including Pennsylvania’s woeful public records law. Although nursing homes are a common subject, PennLive did it in a state that makes very little public under the law, and achieved results that are rare. 


  • Free to Flee,” Naples Daily News, Jacob Carpenter, Brett Blackledge, Manny Garcia, David Albers, Dorothy Edwards, Carolina Hidalgo, Corey Perrine, Scott McIntyre, Harry Walker, Vonna Keomanyvong, Dana Long, Jamie Stoddard, Amy Oshier.
  • Heroin: Killer of a generation,” The Palm Beach Post, Pat Beall, Joe Capozzi, Lawrence Mower, John Pacenti, Christine Stapleton, Barbara Marshall, Mike Stucka, Melanie Mena.
Broadcast/Video - Large (TIE)

Election Expenses Exposed,” Channel 4 News (London), Michael Crick, Job Rabkin, Ed Fraser, Guy Basnett, Andy Lee, Ed Howker, Tom Stone, Paul McNamara.
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Judges’ comments: In a country with strict rules on election spending, Channel 4 documented how the ruling Conservative Party evaded local limitations by paying hotel bills and other expenses to send in at least five top Tory staffers to help defeat a pro-Brexit candidate in a by-election. In other races, it sent “Battle Buses” filled with activists to help campaign for candidates. The current prime minister’s chief-of-staff helped lead a campaign in another district to defeat the leader of the pro-Brexit movement. All these expenses should have been reported as election costs assigned to the local candidates; they were not. Channel 4’s aggressive reporting led to a $100,000 fine levied by the Elections Commission against the Conservative Party and has prompted a still-pending criminal investigation involving up to 20 members of Parliament and others. 

The Lords of the Rings,” HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Rick Bernstein, Joe Perskie, Josh Fine, Nick Dolin, Tim Walker, Bryant Gumbel, Bernie Goldberg, David Scott, Jon Frankel, Beret Remak, Jake Rosenwasser, Daniel Litke, Evan Burgos, Stu Ash, Tres Driscoll, Mike Long, Jason Schmidt, Jeremy Phillips, Mindy Macinnes.
View this story online

Judges’ comments: In recent Olympic Games, the losers have been the poorest of citizens in host countries. The winners? The pooh-bahs of the International Olympic Committee who demand luxury hotel suites and other special perks and privileges. Real Sports went to Beijing, host of the 2008 summer games, and evaded Chinese handlers to interview people who lost their homes to make way for Olympic venues; the reporting team was jailed for two days for having slipped away from official surveillance. In Sochi, after the 2014 Winter Games, one former worker told of unreported deaths of imported migrants in construction accidents. Ahead of the IOC vote to award the 2022 winter games to China once again, Real Sports reported that more than 340 human rights lawyers had disappeared, swept into prison, many not to be heard of again. 


  • Business of Disaster,” Frontline and NPR, Rick Young, Emma Schwartz, Fritz Kramer, Laura Sullivan, Daniel Sheire, Tim Grucza, Andrew Metz, Raney Aronson-Rath, Nicole Beemsterboer, Robert Little, Michael Oreskes.
  • Terror in Europe,” Frontline and ProPublica, Sebastian Rotella, Ricardo Pollack, Dan Edge, Andrew Metz, Raney Aronson-Rath.
Broadcast/Video - Medium

Cash for Compliance?” KNXV-Phoenix, David Biscobing, Shawn Martin and Gerard Watson.
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Judges’ comments: KNXV-TV revealed how a local group exploited the Americans with Disabilities Act and leveraged it into a money-making machine cloaked as a non-profit organization. In more than two dozen reports, the ABC15 Investigators unraveled multi-layered enterprise and showed deception, hypocrisy, motives and the primary players. Their work prompted state investigations and could permanently change how similar cases are handled across the country. 


  • Charlie Foxtrot,” WXIA-Atlanta, Jeremy Campbell, Erin Gutierrez, Matt Livingston, Lauren Rudeseal and Blis Savidge.
  • Transparency,” KHOU-Houston, Jeremy Rogalski, Keith Tomshe, Ty Scholes, Stephanie Kuzydym and Matthew Keyser.
Broadcast/Video - Small

Medical Waste,” WVUE-New Orleans, Lee Zurik, Jon Turnipseed, Tom Wright, Mike Schaefer, Greg Phillips.
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Judges’ comments: This important investigation exposed the secret process of “clawbacks” in prescription drugs in which major health insurance companies force consumers to pay a hidden premium back to the insurance company for their drugs. The reaction to the work was swift. It led to changes in Louisiana law, served as the backbone of numerous lawsuits and alerted consumers across the country on how to avoid these shameful clawbacks for necessary medicines. One IRE Judge said this was among the best – if not the best – investigation ever aired. The stories were compelling and deeply reported. This investigation did it all: exposed wrongdoing and prompted change. It was a wonderful public service.


Innovation in Investigative Journalism - Large

The Panama Papers,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Süddeutsche Zeitung, McClatchy, the Miami Herald, Fusion, Swedish Television and more than 100 other media partners.
View this story online

Judges’ comments: Sifting through 2.6 terabytes of data in 11.5 million files with over 400 journalists representing upwards of 100 partners is a seemingly impossible task to coordinate and keep secret. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed exceptional ingenuity and skill by developing new tools and approaches that facilitated the unprecedented collaboration, and demonstrated a new model for journalistic co-operation to expose dealings of hundreds of thousands of entities. The results from this project around the world are testimony to its impact. It clearly made public something that others would want to keep secret. 


Innovation in Investigative Journalism - Medium

Chemical Breakdown,” Houston Chronicle, Matt Dempsey, Mark Collette, Susan Carroll, Michael Ciaglo.
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Judges’ comments: In the wake of a deadly chemical explosion, the Houston Chronicle reporters partnered with experts to create a new method of analyzing and rating potential harm from facilities in the region. Their investigation found harm well beyond industrial corridors, close to schools and homes. The reporters fought local planning boards for chemical inventory data that was not reported to federal officials and salvaged a repository of national data from a defunct nonprofit that had collected it for years. The local fire department has relied on the project’s work to identify previously unnoticed risks.  


  • Deadly Pursuit | Persecuciones Mortales,” NBC5 Chicago and Telemundo Chicago, Phil Rogers, Karla Leal, Katy Smyser, Courtney Copenhagen, John Hodai and Richard Moy.
  • Doctors & Sex Abuse,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Danny Robbins, Carrie Teegardin, Ariel Hart, Jeff Ernsthausen, Ryon Horne, Richard Watkins, Lois Norder, Alan Judd, Johnny Edwards.
  • Toxic Armories,” The Oregonian/Oregonlive, Rob Davis, Teresa Mahoney, Dave Killen, Jessica Greif, Mark Friesen, Melissa Lewis, Dave Cansler, Lynne Palombo, Beth Nakamura, Scott Brown, Randy Mishler, Drew Vattiat, Lora Huntley, Steve Suo, Nora Simon.
Innovation in Investigative Journalism - Small

Settling for Misconduct,” The Chicago Reporter, Jonah Newman and Matt Kiefer.
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Judges’ comments: As the shooting of black men continued to make headlines, various cities were doling out settlements to families. So The Chicago Reporter decided to examine how much the city was paying to settle its police misconduct lawsuits and built its own database. The findings were staggering: Chicago paid out $210 million during a four-year period (and $53 million on outside attorneys), nearly $50 million over its annual budget for lawsuits, and forcing officials to borrow millions to pay the settlements. This project had it all: an interactive database, maps, and video. Well done and timely.  


  • Bias on the Bench,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Josh Salman, Emily Le Coz, Elizabeth Johnson.
  • Shrinking Shores,” Naples Daily News, Eric Staats, Ryan Mills, David Albers, Brett Blackledge, Harry Walker, Rebecca Reis, Brett Murphy.
Radio/Audio - Large

Advanced Black Lung Cases Surge in Appalachia,” NPR, Howard Berkes, Robert Little, Nicole Beemsterboer, with contributions from Benny Becker and Jeff Young of Ohio Valley ReSource.
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Judges’ comments: Howard Berkes discovered that deadly Black Lung cases in West Virginia and nearby coal states were 10 times higher than the official count, mainly because the federal government was tracking only working miners. But its methodology missed hundreds of miners who needed their paychecks and waited to go to clinics to seek federal benefits until they were laid off, their mines closed, or they were too sick to work. A poignant story with personal interviews, like that with one miner who said, “The more I talk, the more I get out of breath,” and another who called his rock-cutting machine “the Dust Dragon.”


  • Business of Disaster,” NPR and Frontline, Laura Sullivan, Nicole Beemsterboer, Meg Anderson, Barbara Van Woerkom, Alicia Cypress, Robert Little, Rick Young, Emma Schwartz, Fritz Kramer, Daniel Sheire, Tim Grucza, Andrew Metz, Raney Aronson-Rath.
  • Doubled Up In Solitary Confinement,” NPR and The Marshall Project, Joseph Shapiro, Christie Thompson, Robert Little, Raha Naddaf, Nicole Beemsterboer, Jessica Pupovac, Barbara Van Woerkom, Alicia Cypress, Emily Bogle.
  • In the Dark,” American Public Media Reports, Madeleine Baran, Samara Freemark, Natalie Jablonski, Catherine Winter, Chris Worthington, Will Craft, Curtis Gilbert, Jennifer Vogel, Tom Scheck, Hans Buetow, Dave Peters, Andy Kruse, Jeff Thompson, Emily Haavik, Jackie Renzetti, Johnny Vince Evans, Corey Schreppel, Cameron Wiley, Gary Meister.
Radio/Audio - Small

The University of Louisville Foundation Bought An Empty Factory In Oklahoma Because A Donor Asked,” The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Kate Howard.
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Judges’ comments: A classic investigation of which any large network program would have been proud. A donor and a member of the University of Louisville’s Board of Overseers turned his abandoned Oklahoma factory over to the university’s fundraising arm. Reporter Kate Howard found that the multi-layered $3.47 million transaction had no academic purpose, did not result in any revenue for the organization, and appeared to be an ethical breach and tax code violation. She went to Oklahoma to ask questions and poke around on the ground – a trip that prompted quick results. The university began unwinding the deal while she was still on a plane back in Louisville the next day for her eventual broadcast exclusive.

No finalists selected

Student - Large

Voting Wars: Rights | Power | Privilege,” News21, Lily Altavena, Alex Amico, Alejandra Armstrong, Lian Bunny, Elizabeth Campbell, Andrew Clark, Nicole Cobler, Courtney Columbus, Hillary Davis, Sami Edge, Max Garland, Taylor Gilmore, Natalie Griffin, Marianna Hauglie, Sean Holstege, Pinar Istek, Phillip Jackson, Emily Mahoney, Roman Knertser, Michael Lakusiak, Jimmy Miller, Emily Mills, Michael Olinger, Pam Ortega, Kate Peifer, Jeffrey Pierre, Sarah Pitts, Amber Reece, Ali Schmitz, Rose Velazquez, Erin Vogel-Fox.
View this story online

Judges’ comments: In a nationwide investigation of changes in voting laws, students from 18 universities documented voter disenfranchisement in advance of the 2016 election. Using information from every state legislature and public records from local agencies across the country, along with interviews from 31 states, the students matched or outpaced professional publications to show erosions in voter rights and scant evidence of voter fraud in states that had changed their voting requirements since 2012. They went beyond national politics to find that 5.6 million people now live in communities that have eliminated their school boards, leaving parents without a say in their children’s education. Their travels took them from Shelby, Ala., where the Supreme Court case eliminating portions of the Voting Rights Act began, to Navajo Mountain, where tribe members were fighting for their rights. In advance of the election, their deep reporting also pointed to Donald Trump’s popularity in economically-struggling Democratic regions like Mahoning County in eastern Ohio.  


  • Discharging Trouble,” Capital News Service, Carlos Alfaro, Joe Antoshak, Darcy Costello, Morgan Eichensehr, Amanda Eisenberg, Nate Kresh, Teresa Lo, Zoe Sagalow, Catherine Sheffo, Daniel Trielli.
  • Unsettling,” CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn, Marguerite Ward, Maria Arcel, Isabel Riofrío,Christina Nordvang Jensen.
Student - Small

Pharaoh Brown Investigation,” Oregon Daily Emerald, Kenny Jacoby, Jarrid Denney, Cooper Green.
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Judges’ comments: Kenny Jacoby, Jarrid Denney and Cooper Green plowed through massive roadblocks put up by the University of Oregon, its coaches, athletic department administration and a federal student privacy law to expose the truth behind a star football player: He had history of violent behavior. Oregon Duck football player Pharaoh Brown, the reporters documented, punched a teammate, causing a concussion; brawled with another player; and was investigated for trying to choke his girlfriend, whom the police blamed as the instigator. And for all this, Brown faced no punishment from the university, his coaches or the criminal justice system. The university refused to talk to reporters about the incidents. But these tenacious reporters prevailed by finding sources to verify the findings of their investigation. Their determination is an example for all investigative reporters: They refused to quit or back down to a powerful athletic program.


Investigations Triggered by Breaking News

Tragedy on Verruckt,” The Kansas City Star, Matt Campbell, Robert Cronkleton, Eric Adler, Steve Vockrodt, Laura Bauer, Tony Rizzo, Katy Bergen, Scott Canon, Hunter Woodall and Toriano Porter.
View this story online 

Judges’ comments: After the death of a 10-year-old boy at a Kansas water park, an aggressive team of reporters and editors from The Kansas City Star dove deep on the construction and oversight of the world’s tallest water slide. Their reporting revealed a lack of state regulation over amusement park rides and little outside review for safety that was putting the public at risk. The reporters also found other riders who experienced trouble on the ride – and had alerted staff to the malfunctions. Following their work, the owner of the amusement park permanently shut down the ride.



The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World,” by Sally Denton

Judges’ comments: The judges admire the historical lead-up and the contemporary expose of a multinational corporation specializing in engineering, construction, energy generation and weapons of war.  Denton dug beneath the veneer of secrecy to reveal the unconscionable interconnections between government agencies and Bechtel. As a result of its massive government contracts, Bechtel has influenced American foreign policy to match its own interests, which are not always congruent with the best course for the nation. Given Bechtel’s international reach, it seems fitting that Denton decided to write this book after noticing the billions of dollars being paid to Bechtel from the U.S. treasury to allegedly rebuild post-war Iraq.


Gannett Award for Innovation in Investigative Journalism

The Panama Papers,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Süddeutsche Zeitung, McClatchy, Miami Herald, Fusion, Swedish Television and more than 100 other media partners.
View this story online

See judges’ comments under “Large Innovation winner”

Special IRE Awards

Tom Renner Award (for Covering Organized Crime or Other Criminal Acts)

Out of Balance,” The Indianapolis Star, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans, Steve Berta.
View this story online

Judges’ comments: For years, USA Gymnastics, based in Indianapolis as the sport’s governing body for its Olympic teams, turned a blind eye and deaf ear to complaints by parents and others that a number of its member coaches at local gyms around the country were sexually abusing the underage girls whom they trained. Calls were ignored, letters were dumped into a drawer and forgotten, dismissed as hearsay unless signed by a parent or athlete, as none ever was. For 16 years, one such trainer preyed on girls in at least four states before finally caught and arrested. The newspaper’s reporting encouraged a number of victims to go public. By the end of the year, the newspaper could count hundreds of gymnasts who had been assaulted in the past two decades. The Star’s work prompted the ouster of the USA Gymnastics president and led to the charges against physician Larry Nassar at Michigan State University who had been on the American team’s staff at four Olympic Games. Nassar has since been indicted on federal and state charges. Without question, this series of stories was one of the most important and impactful works of journalism seen in recent years.


FOI Award

Denied: How Texas Keeps Tens of Thousands of Children Out of Special Education,” Houston Chronicle, Brian M. Rosenthal.
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Judges’ comments: The Houston Chronicle mounted an exhaustive effort to probe a secret, arbitrary and illegal quota set by Texas state officials in 2004 to limit the number of students who could receive special education services such as tutoring, counseling and therapy. Adherence to the standard was a factor in school performance scores. The measure saved the state billions of dollars. “Denied” initiated critical change, prompting the U.S. Department of Education to investigate and quickly order that the benchmark end, with remedies for its damage. The shift removed a roadblock to some 250,000 more children entitled to special education who finally could receive needed services. The Chronicle’s use of records and their denial as a foundation for its extensive shoe-leather reporting, and that of others, is a model for investigative reporting. In triggering change for vulnerable children, “Denied” exemplifies the best aspirations of journalism to expose injustice and alleviate harm.


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