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IRE announces winners of 2020 Philip Meyer Journalism Award

The New York Times’ groundbreaking coronavirus tracking project took first place in the 2020 Philip Meyer Journalism Awards. Other top awards go to investigations that uncovered how deeply race and income determine causes of death in Massachusetts and how qualified immunity impacts excessive force cases against police.

“In this difficult year, journalists and news organizations stepped up to fill the void of important information for the public,” said Sarah Cohen, a contest judge and the Knight Chair in Data Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. “In the tradition of Philip Meyer, they created data and analyzed information using social science methods to help the public understand the pandemic, racial justice and other key issues.” 

The 2020 winners are:

First place: Tracking the Coronavirus, The New York Times

By Staff at The New York Times

Judges’ comments: “The New York Times' coronavirus project is a massive data collection undertaking, but it also is much more than that. The Times took on vetting and building out a strict methodology to ensure that data on COVID cases at the county-level, at nursing homes, at universities and in prisons could be used reliably. But The Times also published groundbreaking journalism rooted in social science methods that helped shed light on disparities in the impact from COVID-19. This work truly is a public service for researchers, for public policy efforts, and most importantly, for readers.”

Second place: Last Words, The Boston Globe

By Mark Arsenault, Liz Kowalczyk, Todd Wallack, Rebecca Ostriker, Robert Weisman, Saurabh Datar and Spotlight editor Patricia Wen.

Judges’ comments: “Painstakingly gathering more than 1.2 million death certificates and surveying thousands of families, The Boston Globe showed how deeply race and income determine how and why Massachusetts residents die and how those factors affect the quality and length of life and access to care. The Globe carefully analyzed the death certificate data with methods such as linear and multiple regression and geocoded the residential addresses of the deceased and matched it with Census data to determine income. Along with the data and survey work, the Globe did numerous interviews with epidemiologists, medical experts and family members to produce compassionate and informed stories. Impressively, the Globe team reacted quickly to the pandemic by including investigations into nursing home deaths from Covid-19 and revealing possible discrimination against the poor who apply to nursing homes. The series is a riveting example of how data analysis and social science methods leads to stellar public service journalism.”

Third place: “Shielded,” Reuters

By Andrew Chung, Lawrence Hurley, Jackie Botts, Andrea Januta, Guillermo Gomez, and Jaimi Dowdell

Additional reporting by Charlie Szymanski, Lena Masri, and Kanupriya Kapoor

Judges comments: “The Reuters' team reviewed thousands of lawsuits and appellate cases of qualified immunity to show a spike in cases since the Supreme Court's ruling in 2009, and that courts were more willing to take cases defending police officers than plaintiffs who accused officers of excessive force. Using their unique relationship with Westlaw, Reuters showed a plaintiff's likelihood of overcoming qualified immunity depended heavily on where the case was heard. The project used logistic regression and other social science methods, and was published weeks before George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement shone a spotlight on the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.” 

Honorable mention: “What Do We Really Know About the Politics of People Behind Bars?” The Marshall Project and Slate

By Staff at The Marshall Project and Slate

Judges’ comments: “The Marshall Project and Slate focused their social science efforts on a population never polled before: the incarcerated. The project was remarkable not only in its mission -- to survey the political leanings of those currently imprisoned -- but also in its reach, gathering more than 8,000 submissions from across the country during one of the most historic elections in U.S. history. As states begin restoring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people, this project may very well be the first glimpse into the future of our nation's electorate.”  

The Meyer Award recognizes the best uses of empirical methods in journalism. The winners will be honored during the 2021 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
  • Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • David McKie, Deputy Managing Editor at Canada’s National Observer
  • Cheryl Phillips, Hearst Professional in Residence and Director of Big Local News at Stanford University
  • 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.


  • Denise Malan, IRE Interim Executive Director,
  • Sarah Cohen, Knight Chair in Data Journalism at Arizona State University, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication,
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