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2020 Award Winners

IRE Awards

Winners & finalists by category

Print/Online - Division I

Winner

Fruits of Labor,” The Associated Press, Margie Mason and Robin McDowell

Judges’ comments: “Fruits of Labor,” The Associated Press, Margie Mason and Robin McDowell
Judges’ comments: This investigative series reveals the abuse of workers, many of them children, who produce palm oil, a product deeply interwoven into daily diets. It’s a story that affects us all and is only possible because of courageous reporting that is informed by the journalists’ mastery of a complex and secretive industry. The harm, which is staggering, is displayed in excruciating detail through risky, on-the-ground reporting that gives an up-close look at the lives of those caught in the industry.

Finalists

Torn Apart,” USA TODAY

Judges’ comments: Oftentimes in investigative journalism we don’t go back if “the story has been done,” but this investigation shows the power and importance of rigorously interrogating solutions. Through meticulous documentation, this investigation exposed the systematically induced trauma of foster children that happened after Florida changed the laws in an attempt to protect children from abusive parents.

The President's Taxes,” The New York Times

Judges’ comments: An excellent team of dedicated and determined reporters nabbed the ultimate secret documents, shamed a sitting U.S. president and overturned decades of false narratives that misled the nation.

Trust and Consequences,” The Washington Post

Judges’ comments: This story is both a compelling narrative and searing investigation, demonstrating the power of a well-told story that is built on deep reporting to expose astounding wrongs against migrant children.

Print/Online - Division II

Winners

Deceit, Disrepair and Death Inside a Southern California Rental Empire,” KPCC/LAist, Aaron Mendelson

Judges’ comments: Reporter Aaron Mendelson left nothing untouched in the investigation of a sprawling $1.3 billion rental empire that virtually nobody had heard of before. Mendelson analyzed business records and assessment data to uncover 16,000 rental units tied to one man and the property management company he owns. Mendelson filed public records requests for inspection and code enforcement reports to document living conditions. He used court records, depositions and evictions data to show how the empire came to be and how it continues to thrive. He followed all this to the tenants living in substandard conditions and let them tell their stories in a sensitive and at times heartbreaking manner. What resulted was a beautifully well done investigation with incredible detail.

Finalist

Exposed,” Houston Chronicle

Judges’ comments: This investigation by the Houston Chronicle wove together an exceptional tale of how COVID-19 spread throughout the city using extensive reporting and nuanced storytelling. This is a prime example of public service journalism with urgent, in-the-moment accountability that is hard to do.

Print/Online - Division III

Winner (IRE MEDAL)

Careless,” The Indianapolis Star, Tony Cook, Emily Hopkins, Tim Evans

Judges’ comments: This investigation exposed a massive loophole with unbelievable consequences, revealing how public hospitals in Indiana took advantage of a Medicaid program intended for nursing home residents. Hospital executives prospered while nursing home residents were left to suffer the consequences. The investigation clearly explained a complex scheme that painted the state’s healthcare system into a corner and left it with some of the worst skilled nursing facilities in the nation. The investigation began before the pandemic took hold in the U.S., but reporters stayed with the story as the COVID-19 crisis deepened. All the while, lawmakers and business leaders tried to stop reporters from getting the information out to the public.

Finalists

Salt in the wounds: The uphill struggle against road pollution,” Adirondack Explorer

Judges’ comments: This unique investigation demonstrated how the seemingly innocuous practice of pouring salt on icy roads in New York state has pit public health against road safety. The author weaves the narrative of one family through clear explanations of the regulatory process.

The Bad Cops: How Minneapolis protects its worst police officers until it’s too late,” Minnesota Reformer

Judges’ comments: Months before George Floyd died, Tony Webster had requested police disciplinary records to show how infrequently complaints result in disciplinary action. After Floyd’s death, Webster sued the Minneapolis police department for the records, footing the bill for court costs himself. We commend Webster for continuing to push for transparency and for the Minnesota Reformer for telling the story behind the records.

Print/Online - Division IV

Winner

Land-Grab Universities: Expropriated Indigenous Land is the Foundation of the Land-Grant University System,” High Country News, Robert Lee, Tristan Ahtone, Margaret Pearce, Kalen Goodluck, Geoff McGhee, Cody Leff, Katherine Lanpher and Taryn Salinas

Judges’ comments: This investigation produced a foundational piece of journalism that forces a reckoning with dark origins of many of our nation’s universities. Through maps, interactives and analysis of archival materials that were almost lost to time, the sheer magnitude of this effort is breathtaking, and its findings are no less impressive. This examination of land grant universities will facilitate important research and journalism moving forward.

Finalist

Thousands Of D.C. Renters Are Evicted Every Year. Do They All Know To Show Up To Court?,” DCist, WAMU, and SpotlightDC

Judges’ comments: This investigation broke fresh ground on the critical issue of evictions by turning shoe-leather reporting into an exhaustive examination of a broken system and the players responsible for unnecessarily forcing renters from their homes. The painstaking work of building the database at the heart of this story and collecting records that contradicted official narratives offers a playbook to other reporters looking at housing.

Video - Division I

Winner

America's Medical Supply Crisis,” FRONTLINE, Associated Press, Global Reporting Centre, Peter Klein (GRC), Christine Brandt (GRC), Juliet Linderman (AP), Martha Mendoza (AP), Kate McCormick, Frank Koughan, Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak (AP), Ron Nixon (AP), Sally Buzbee (AP), Andrew Metz (FRONTLINE), Raney Aronson-Rath (FRONTLINE)

Judges’ comments: This report exposed the shocking vulnerability we all face based on the country’s truly flawed medical supply system and inadequate preparation for large public health crises. The journalists exposed and tracked down the myriad people trying to sound the alarm and used data to underscore their point. And their work met the moment when the stakes could not be higher as the world faces an unprecedented pandemic.

Finalists

Plastic Wars,” FRONTLINE, NPR, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Judges’ comments: This damning story upended conventional wisdom about recycling. It revealed how the plastic industry created a system that allows the everyday person to vastly overestimate their contribution to combating climate change, which has devastating implications.

Deterring Democracy,” Channel 4 News (UK)

Judges’ comments: Besides being a “big get,” the extensive analysis of these leaked documents provided the public a window into the mechanics of a presidential campaign’s efforts to target not just supporters, but those it believed would not.

Video - Division II

Winners

Full Disclosure,” ABC15 Arizona, Dave Biscobing, Gerard Watson, Lauren Wilson, Shawn Martin and Mark Casey

Judges’ comments: Full Disclosure truly lived up to its name by exposing a broken system in Arizona where law enforcement agencies fail to track dishonest and criminal officers. The investigation reveals how Brady cops stayed on the beat and continued to rack up misconduct complaints and in some cases, sent innocent people to jail. More importantly, this was true public service journalism as the team compiled its own Brady database and made it available to the public. Full Disclosure not only exposed wrongs and held the powerful accountable, but by creating a first of its kind database, the team provides an example of what other journalists can do to track and expose Brady cops in their own communities.

Finalist

Police, Paramedics, and Ketamine: What Happened to Elijah McClain?,” KDVR/FOX31

Judges’ comments: This investigation uncovered the heartbreaking details of the last moments of Elijah McClain’s life. The entry uncovered critical information like the careless actions of officers and the dangers of paramedics administering powerful drugs.

Banking Below 30,” WFAA TV

Judges’ comments: This was an impressive project not only for its scope and effect on the local community, but also its potential for lasting impact. Banking Below 30, which also used an innovative approach to illustrate how a historical problem continues to plague communities of color, is the definition of award-worthy investigative journalism that continues to make a difference for the most marginalized among us.

Video - Division III

Winner

Cell Blocked,” WVUE-TV, Lee Zurik, Cody Lillich, Jon Turnipseed, Mike Schaefer, Kristen Palestina

Judges’ comments: This team exposed a shocking practice by a local sheriff of keeping inmates in holding cells — sometimes dozens to a room for weeks at a time — in an apparent violation of law. Their reporting led to dozens of accounts from former inmates suggesting the practice had gone on for almost a decade, despite the availability of beds in other parts of the jail. Most importantly, this investigation led the sheriff’s office to institute reforms and abide by the law.

Finalist

Inspecting the Inspectors,” WVUE-TV

Judges’ comments: Clear, concise reporting that combined GPS data from government vehicles with falsified records from city building inspectors to reveal a dangerous pattern of malfeasance that may have been responsible for the deaths of three people and ultimately led to resignations and reforms.

Registered & Enrolled,” WBFF-TV

Judges’ comments: This investigation exposed a loophole that allowed a registered sex offender to attend a local high school. Despite the sensitive nature of the alleged crimes, the team carefully handled the victims’ stories and relentlessly pressed officials for answers.

Video - Division IV

Winner

Fixing a Flaw for Veterans Lost on the Line,” WGME CBS 13, Jon Chrisos, Jack Amrock and Caulin Morrison

Judges’ comments: Excellent investigative coverage that revealed a potentially fatal flaw in the Veterans Crisis Line. Working off a tip, Jon Chrisos found when veterans called the hotline, help sometimes went to the wrong location instead of the person in need. The agency originally dismissed the problem as rare, but Chrisos showed the government didn’t know how often this happened. This critical coverage put a spotlight on an issue that is not on many people’s radar and, as a result, changed national policy and strengthened a system hundreds of veterans turn to daily.

Finalist

Belvidere Police Accused of Systematic Abuse of Power, Excessive Force,” WREX-TV

Judges’ comments: Impressive reporting that grew out of a reporter noticing a wrong in her community and wondering if it was more widespread. This series is well-produced, and the relentless pursuit of proof — through dash-cam records, audio recordings and complaints — is commendable and has forced change.

Audio - Large

Winner (IRE MEDAL)

American Rehab,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, Shoshana Walter, Laura Starecheski, Ike Sriskandarajah, Brett Myers, Jim Briggs, Fernando Arruda, Kevin Sullivan, Al Letson, Amy Julia Harris, Katharine Mieszkowski, Najib Aminy, Amy Mostafa, Rosemarie Ho, Matt Thompson, Esther Kaplan, Andy Donohue, Amanda Pike, Narda Zacchino, Gabe Hongsdusit, Sarah Mirk, Claire Mullen, Hannah Young, Byard Duncan, David Rodriguez, Eren K. Wilson

Judges’ comments: Often you either have a great story or a great investigation, but rarely do you get both. "American Rehab" has all of it. Shoshana Walter's deep dive into work-based rehab programs exposed a loophole in labor oversight and regulation that allows participants to work for little or no pay. Walter told the story through interviews with rehab participants and family members; creating a narrative of long hours, unsafe working conditions and cult-like atmospheres. She was able to connect these programs to companies that contract with them for low-cost labor, some of which are household names. No government agency tracks these programs. So the team created an online database of 300 work-rehab programs with an estimated 60,000 participants. The data gives us an unprecedented look at the scope of the issue. This investigation checked all the boxes — character, pacing and storytelling. It was technically perfect and flawlessly executed. Reveal pulled all the parts of a very complicated investigation together for listeners in a way that was ideally suited for the medium.

Finalists

STUCK: Inside California’s Housing Crisis” KPCC/LAist

Judges’ comments: Reporter Aaron Mendelson masterfully combined data analysis with shoe-leather reporting to uncover a sprawling low-income housing empire. By following the data he was able to connect listeners with tenants in a narrative of substandard housing and neglect.

An Adolescence Seized,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX

Judges’ comments: This investigation shines new light into the dark corners of the U.S. immigration system that allows thousands of migrant children to languish in custody for months and sometimes years. Data freed through a public records lawsuit was married with the narrative of a 16-year-old girl from Honduras to create a compelling tale of a flawed system.

Audio - Small

Winner

Everytown: The Hamptons,” WSHU Public Radio, Charles Lane, Ann Lopez and Max Wasserman

Judges’ comments: The strength of this piece is that it kept its hyperlocal focus on the saga of wealthy residents set on ridding their community of Latino laborers. The writing was crisp, the audio immersive and engaging and the dogged reporting was exceptionally fair. Judges thought the use of tape was masterful and appreciated the story went beyond the tropes of this wealthy enclave and forced the listener to engage in real issues of culture, labor, privilege and power.

Finalists

How Kentucky Jailers Profit From Selling E-Cigarettes To Inmates,” Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

Judges’ comments: A novel investigation that reinforces the many layers of exploitation in a jail system. The finding that this practice netted more than $1 million in profit was striking and significant.

Student - Large

Winner

Homeland Secrets,” Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, José-Ignacio Castañeda Perez, Alexandra Edelmann, Joel Farias Godinez, Derek Hall, Nicole Ludden, Maia Ordoñez, Devan Sauer, Mackenzie Shuman, Mike Barnitz and Troy Tauscher

Judges’ comments: This team took an example of one incident in their community and expanded it to a nationwide look at shootings by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations. Those incidents previously received little attention. This project is a great example of the payoff dogged reporting can bring. Even when these journalists’ records requests were stalled by the federal agency they were investigating, they turned to state and local law enforcement records to build their case. They got every drop to tell this story and they did so in a compelling narrative.

Finalist

Public housing, the last refuge for the poor, threatens to kick out tenants for small debts,” Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

Judges’ comments: These stories illustrate why collaborations can lead to groundbreaking investigative work. These stories laid out how cities around the country were responding to homelessness, including criminalizing the people that need the most help.

Kids Imprisoned: An investigation of juvenile justice in America,” News21

Judges’ comments: Privacy laws make covering juvenile justice particularly challenging, but the News 21 team rose to the challenge and produced dozens of stories showing patterns of abuse, neglect and inequality.

Student - Small

Winner

When Colleges Fail On Mental Health,” CUNY Newmark School of Journalism: NY City News Service, Abigail Napp and Harsha Nahata

Judges’ comments: It’s hard to underestimate the importance of mental health, not just to college students but families and beyond. This story not only tackled a topic relevant to us all, but it reached beyond the students' own school to reveal the scope of a problem not often talked about. The reporting was sharp, revealing and went beyond anecdotes. The team also took a fresh angle on the issue of inadequate mental health resources. Bravo.

Finalist

ASU's sexual assault investigation processes leave survivors traumatized, often without justice,” The State Press

Judges’ comments: This smart reporting project packed in several important findings about the way their university handles these cases, and also featured powerful voices of victims who trusted the students with their stories.

Water Rates and Forgotten Tax Dollars,” KOMU8 News

Judges’ comments: This was an impressive deep dive into a topic most student journalists likely wouldn't tackle, and the findings — uncovering millions of misappropriated city funds, among other things — were eye-popping.

Investigations Triggered by Breaking News

Winner

The Death of George Floyd,” Star Tribune, Libor Jany, Andy Mannix, Jennifer Bjorhus, Jeff Hargarten and Liz Sawyer

Judges’ comments: In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the Star Tribune quickly pulled together a team to provide context to the incident and investigated the processes that allowed it to happen. The result was polished, deep work on deadline on one of the most consequential news events in years. The team examined the issue from all angles: the historical context, the police union, the civilian review board and more. The stories were produced within weeks of Floyd’s death by a newsroom also covering the pandemic, protest and other breaking news. We commend the newspaper for devoting the resources to tell these important stories.

Finalists

The promised land,” The Kansas City Star

Judges’ comments: This investigation went above and beyond by taking us inside a home meant to help young girls and uncovered allegations of abuse. They told difficult stories in a compelling way.

Life Care of Kirkland: The nation's first COVID-19 epicenter,” The Seattle Times

Judges’ comments: Within days of the first U.S. COVID-19 death in a nursing home, this team pulled together key records and developed sources to hold nursing home leaders and public health officials accountable for lapses in inspections, testing and communication.

 

IRE Award for Sports Investigations

Winner

Sexual misconduct at LSU,” USA TODAY, Kenny Jacoby, Nancy Armour and Jessica Luther

Judges’ comments: This investigation exhaustively documented the many ways in which a university worked to protect its prized football program at the expense of sexual assault victims. Their persistence included lawsuits for records that the university even declined to provide one of the victims and documented the open secrets around allegations of abuse by star players. What’s more, dogged reporting revealed that this was not the story of one bad apple, but a concerted effort by officials to shield multiple athletes.

Finalists

Hidden figures: College students may be paying thousands in athletic fees and not know it,” NBC News

Judges’ comments: This investigation broke new ground into the myriad costs of attending college and required creative pursuit of data that in some cases was purposely omitted from student’s bills. Beyond the thorough reporting, the team performed a valuable public service by providing access to the data they compiled.

Book

Winner

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic,” by Eric Eyre

Judges’ comments: Many of us have heard the statistic: 12 million opioid pain pills in three years to a town with a population of 382 people. But Eyre takes the reader through the efforts of a small newspaper to uncover the government and corporate greed behind that number. He thoughtfully weaves the stories of those who overdosed and his own personal struggles throughout the book. Eyre's work reinforces why we do investigative journalism.

Finalist

“Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife,” by Ariel Sabar

Judges’ comments: Sabar continuously pulls the thread which leads to some deep reporting and bizarre findings. He provides history and details for the reader to understand the world of religious artifacts and why this forgery was so gripping.

Special IRE Awards

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

Winner

FinCEN Files,” BuzzFeed News, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 media partners around the world

Judges’ comments: This investigation, based on a trove of thousands of secret government records, gave us a peek into a dark side of banking that we don’t know enough about. The eye-opening collaboration revealed how banks we know and trust can move dirty money, avoid prosecution and continue to profit. The FinCEN Files truly honored the spirit of the Renner Award by exposing this global, financial corruption.

Finalists

Targeted,” Tampa Bay Times

Judges’ comments: This investigation uncovered an audacious scheme perpetrated against young children by the very people who are supposed to serve and protect the community. The team’s use of body camera video, never before seen records and dogged reporting exposed how a sheriff's office created an arbitrary list, claimed it would help prevent crime, then used it to repeatedly harass children and their families.

Luanda Leaks,” International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, FRONTLINE, Expresso, The New York Times and 33 other media partners

Judges’ comments: Corruption, family ties, profiting off the poor — Luanda Leaks has it all. This compelling read took us behind the scenes of a massive, global empire and revealed the true story of how Africa’s wealthiest woman made her millions.

FOI Award

Winner

The Disappeared” and “An Adolescence, Seized,” Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, Aura Bogado, Melissa Lewis, Victoria Baranetsky, Rachel Brooke, Jenny Casas, Wilson Sayre, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson, Najib Aminy, Amy Mostafa, Andrew Donohue, Esther Kaplan, Mitchell Landsberg, Soo Oh, Nikki Frick, Al Letson, Matt Thompson, Kevin Sullivan, John Barth, Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Judges’ comments: A masterful investigation that exposed systematic harm and laid bare the consequences by piecing together how they had played out in the case of a girl who had been misled to think her family had abandoned her. Melissa Lewis’ data analysis of records, obtained through the news outlet’s litigation, gave the public an unprecedented look at the lives of thousands of children, exposing that many had been detained for long periods. Reporter Aura Bogado’s relentless quest to find out what happened to a girl who had been swallowed up by the system is both admirable and expertly told. It isn’t easy to include first person in an investigation and Bogado’s inclusion of herself in the story is pitch-perfect.

Finalist

The NYPD Files,” ProPublica

Judges’ comments: ProPublica marshaled its investigative resources to shatter the secrecy surrounding an issue of urgent public importance: misconduct in America’s largest police department.

Dying Inside,” Reuters

Judges’ comments: A massive public records lift that is making, and will continue to make, a difference in communities all over the country. The effort to gather this data and share it is an important public service.

Contest entries are screened and judged by IRE members who are working journalists. Work that includes any 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. For example, some work from the Investigative Reporting Workshop, Tampa Bay Times, WREG-TV Memphis, and The USA TODAY Network was ineligible for entry in this year’s contest. “The screeners and judges worked diligently to carefully review hundreds of entries despite many of them having to cover the ongoing COVID-19 crisis,” Committee chair Jennifer LaFleur said. “I am so grateful for their dedication.”

This year’s contest judges:

  • Jennifer LaFleur, Investigative Reporting Workshop, American University (Chair)
  • Bethany Barnes, Tampa Bay Times (co-chair)
  • Fernando Diaz, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University
  • Zaneta Lowe, WREG-TV, Memphis
  • Eric Sagara, Big Local News, Stanford University
  • Kameel Stanley, Stitcher

To ensure fairness and transparency, some judges were not present during deliberations due to potential conflicts of interest. They are:

  • Jennifer LaFleur: Print/Online Division IV
  • Eric Sagara: Audio - Large, Student - Small
  • Bethany Barnes: Tom Renner

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, lauren@ire.org, 573-882-6668.

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