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IRE announces winners of 2021 Philip Meyer Journalism Award

The Wall Street Journal's deep dive into TikTok algorithms won first place in the 2021 Philip Meyer Journalism Awards. Other top awards go to newsrooms that used sensors to track air pollution from sugar cane controlled burns and that used machine learning to analyze thousands of police contracts for pricey benefits.

"The Philip Meyer award entries for 2021 showed a growing sophistication in both technique and storytelling that melds the best of social science methods and journalism," 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 2021 winners are:

First place: “How TikTok Figures You Out,” The Wall Street Journal
By Rob Barry, Yoan Cart, Dave Cole, Jason French, Robert Libetti, Maureen Linke, William Mata, Frank Matt, Darnell Stalworth, Joanna Stern, Christopher S. Stewart, Kenny Wassus, Georgia Wells, and John West

Judges’ comments: “Reporters at the Wall Street Journal revealed how TikTok's algorithm can send users, including teens, into a seemingly endless stream of potentially harmful videos on sex, drugs, and depression. The Journal created over 100 bots, each programmed to pause for specific types of content, to see where the social media site sent them. The bots collected hundreds of thousands of videos and thumbnail images, which were analyzed using a variety of machine learning and image classification techniques designed for unusually large collections of this kind. The reporters found in some cases, the algorithm sent the bot down a rabbit hole of dark or dangerous content.

“By presenting their first findings in a video, the Journal showed non-technical audience the threads of extreme content that the bots were pushed into viewing. The combination of simulations and analysis in uncovering this troubling and sometimes appalling content was, in the judges' view, an important extension of the social science methods that the Philip Meyer Award is meant to recognize.”

Second place: Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem, The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica

By Lulu Ramadan of The Palm Beach Post, and Ash Ngu and Maya Miller of ProPublica

Judges’ comments: “The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica teamed up to gauge air quality in the Glades -- an agricultural region in Florida with cane fields that produce more than half the nation’s cane sugar -- during the four months of the cane-burning season. The project probed the relationship, if any, between cane burns and increased air pollution at residents’ homes. The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica collaborated with residents to set up low-cost sensors outside their homes. Their analysis of more than 100 days of data discovered spikes in fine particulate matter on days when the state authorized cane burns. In addition to the quantitative analysis of the air-quality data, reporters gathered qualitative data about the effects of cane smoke, using a text bot that surveyed residents whenever their sensors detected a spike in pollution.”

Third place: “Gilded Badges: How New Jersey Cops Profit From Police Unions and Avoid Accountability,” Asbury Park Press and ProPublica

By Andrew Ford of the Asbury Park Press, and Agnes Chang, Jeff Kao and Agnel Philip of 


Judges' comments: “The Asbury Park Press-ProPublica team scraped thousands of municipal contracts and pension documents, then built a natural language processing workflow to find gold in the archive of bureaucracy. In one case, actual gold, in the form of a $7,000 police badge. Gilded Badges uncovered dozens of incidents of questionable practices, huge leave liabilities, overpaid officers, illegal payouts and other contract language and perks that make New Jersey cops strikingly well paid and protected.”

The Meyer Award recognizes the best uses of empirical methods in journalism. The winners will be honored during the 2022 NICAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia on March 5. 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
  • 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.


  • Diana Fuentes, IRE 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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