By: Mark Fitzgerald
The Chicago Tribune’s series of stories that won a shared Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting Monday have already had a huge impact on consumer safety — including touching off the largest recall of full-size cribs in the history of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
?We talk so much about journalism making a difference in the lives of people, and this happens to be one of those cases that did that,” said Editor Ann Marie Lipinski.
“There’s really been the most gratifying public response to this body of work,” said George de Lama, the Tribune’s managing editor/news. “This award — given everything that’s happened in our industry and the turmoil in our company — is very gratifying because it was a staff project and involved doing the kind of work newspapers are supposed to do.”
The “Hidden Hazards” story began with an investigation into the death of Kenny Sweet, a 20-month-old boy who died after swallowing some tiny magnets that had slipped from his older brother’s toy.
“Patricia Callahan really went with the story from there, and ultimately we showed how the (Consumer Product Safety Commission) had become weakened and docile,” de Lama said.
Tribune reporters, armed with a lead detecting tool, discovered lead in a many products on Chicago store shelves. Among the nationwide recalls that resulted from Tribune reporting were toys branded with the Thomas the Tank and Curious George logos.
“We even had our Beijing bureau involved with (correspondent) Evan Osnos,” de Lama said.
The series earlier this year won the George Polk Award for Consumer Reporting, and was a finalist in the Selden Ring competition.
More gratifying than the awards, Lipinski said, was the reaction from Tribune readers. “When you get notes from moms saying, ‘I have these magnet toys in my house, and didn’t realize they could be dangerous,’ that really feels good.”
Lipinski, too, sees the Pulitzer as a sort of vindication in a troubled time for newspapers. “This has been such a tough year in the industry and our profession, and to see reporters doing what they’re supposed to do, and see them do it at the top of the talent — that also is a joy in itself.”
In addition to Callahan and Osnos, the series was reported by Maurice Possley, Sam Roe, Michael Oneal, and Ted Gregory.
One indication of the impact of the stories was the speed of the recall of Simplicity brand cribs. “The commission issued the recall even before the story made it into print,” de Lama said. “They recalled the cribs when we started making inquiries to regulators.”
The Tribune story revealed the death of child in 2005 was linked to a design flaw in the cribs. The reporters also revealed that a Consumer Product Safety Commission inspector never actually inspected the crib that caused the child’s death.