A powerful series exposing a coal industry conspiracy that schemed to deny even meager benefits to miners suffering black lung disease has won the prestigious Heywood Broun Award, presented annually by The Newspaper Guild-CWA.

The award for “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung Disease, Buried by Law and Medicine,” which includes a $5,000 check, is shared by journalists from the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and ABC News.

A pair of Sacramento Bee reporters and a trio of journalists at the Washington Post were chosen as Broun Substantial Distinction winners. Each team of winners will receive $1,000.

CPI reporter Chris Hamby spent a year intensely researching the black lung series, which was amplified by ABC News reports from journalists Brian Ross and Matthew Mosk. The network spotlight led Johns Hopkins to rapidly suspend its compromised black lung program and spurred members of Congress to propose stronger legislative remedies.

“Black lung? Wasn’t that something we first heard about decades ago and that public officials and the medical community have dealt with?” the four-member Broun judging panel wrote about choosing the series as the winner among nearly 70 standout entries from 2013.

“That was our belief – that is, until reading and viewing this report,” the judges said. “Despite legislative reforms beginning in the late ‘60s and oversight by the Labor Department, it seems the coal industry giants have been gaming the system – not only using their hired legal specialists to prolong appeals in black lung benefit cases so that the process ‘outlives’ the victims, they actually co-opted one of our more prestigious hospitals to aid their scheme.”

The series revealed that the head of radiology for black lung at Johns Hopkins read more than 1,500 X-rays over 13 years, finding that not one single miner had a serious enough case of black lung to qualify for benefits. Hundreds of later second opinions, biopsies and autopsies would prove him wrong. Meanwhile, the coal companies paid the hospital about 10 times the usual fees for the serial misdiagnoses.

“That’s the heart of journalism – follow a small lead and pursue it until you expose a huge injustice,” one of the judges said.

The series has won other major awards, including this year’s Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Broun award honors the best of journalism in the tradition of the famed newspaper columnist who helped found the Guild in 1933.

"We believe our winner truly reflects the Guild founder’s commitment to championing the underdog against the powerful, the uncaring, the corrupt,” the judges said.

They also had high praise for the two projects they honored with Substantial Distinction awards. The Sacramento Bee won for a series about Nevada busing hundreds of mentally ill patients out of their state. The Washington Post won for “Homes for the Taking,” exposing how lien buyers were able to prey on financially desperate homeowners.

At the Bee, a project by Cynthia Hubert and Phillip Reese began with the tale of a confused man who stepped off a Greyhound bus and wandered into a police station for help. He had lost his ID and had no money, no warm clothing and no prescriptions for medication he needed. The reporters learned that Nevada’s primary state mental health hospital had put him on a one-way bus trip. They soon discovered he wasn’t the only busing victim.

The series revealed a pattern of systematic “patient dumping” by the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas. Over a five-year period, the hospital had discharged more than 1,500 seriously ill patients – many of them considered a danger to themselves and others – and bused them to cities in nearly every state. The Bee’s series put an end to it and forced the state to allocate millions of dollars more for mental health services.

Judges said the series raised vital questions about “issues of health care underfunding and potential abuse and neglect of the most vulnerable of our citizens – upwards of 9 million sufferers of severe mental illness -- throughout our society.”

At the Post, the investigative team of Michael Sallah, Debbie Cenziper and Steven Rich “exposed a shocking example of predation in the District of Columbia aimed largely at poor, sick and elderly residents,” the judges said. Sallah, while at the Miami Herald, and Cenziper, are previous Broun winners.

The series showed how policies of the District’s Office of Tax and Revenue made Washington a magnet for aggressive out-of-town lien buyers who virtually stole people’s homes through lien auctions. While other communities have similar systems, the Post reporters found the District unique in its lack of safeguards for property owners.

The judges were moved by the reporters’ examples, for instance a $134 overdue tax bill that soon turned into a $5,000 debt for an aging veteran suffering from dementia. The investor foreclosed, leaving the man sleeping on the street. In another case, a woman being treated in a nursing home for Alzheimer’s lost her family home over a $44.79 tax debt. Many other similar cases were cited.

The Post series led the D.C. City Council to pass legislation prohibiting the sale of liens on tax debts less than $2,000, capping legal fees and interest charged by lien buyers, allowing homeowners who lose homes through foreclosure to keep a portion of their equity, and banning loan buying by investors convicted of fraud and deceitful practices in other places.

The journalists judging the 2013 entries were James B. Steele, author, Vanity Fair contributor, former Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter and a two-time winner of both the Broun Award and the Pulitzer Prize; retired New York Times copy editor Betsy Wade, a pioneer in the legal and social fight for women’s equality in the newsroom; retired New York Times senior writer Lena Williams, who began as a sports writer at the paper in 1974; and panel chair Jeff Miller, retired communications director for the 600,000-member Communications Workers of America.

As with previous judging panels, they said the contest reaffirmed their faith that exceptional and important journalism is still getting done, regardless of how much the industry changes.“It was inspiring to review so many examples of journalistic excellence in service to – in Broun’s words – ‘the ordinary run of people," they said.

Founded in 1933, The Newspaper Guild-CWA represents 25,000 media industry and other workers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Find us at NewsGuild.org, Facebook.com/TheNewspaperGuildCWA and @news_guild.




Comments

Award Winner Missing From Your Headline

Bill Buzenberg | Friday, August 1, 2014

Thanks for running a story on the winner of the Heywood Broun Award--which was the Center for Public Integrity. Appropriately, the Center's award-winning work, which includes the Pulitzer Prize, was the lead of the story. However, your readers would not know this by looking at the headline which only mentions the two runner ups. As the Executive Director of the Center, I am quite proud of our investigative work and the increased visibility that has accrued to the 25-year-old Center for Public Integrity. Thanks for recognizing us as the top winner of this award.

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