Calling it a “stunning expose” on a death in police custody, the panel judging 2014 entries in NewsGuild-CWA’s annual Heywood Broun awards has named Christopher Baxter’s “A Death Turns Into a Mystery” the top winner.
Baxter, of NJ Advance Media/Newark Star-Ledger, spent five months on the investigation, which was published as an eight-page special section. Online, it appeared as an interactive multimedia presentation that included a first-of-its-kind database on every arrest-related death in New Jersey during the past decade.
When Baxter began his project, very little had been revealed about the death of Kenwin Garcia. Unlike more recent cases of police-involved deaths, there were no dashboard or body cam videos, no reliable witnesses, not even records of 911 calls.
But using all the tools of investigative reporting, including 18 public records requests, Baxter discovered that police had repeatedly slammed Garcia to the ground and that he may have suffocated while being restrained. Reaction to the story was swift, with lawmakers introducing bills requiring independent investigations of officer-involved deaths. Police also have increased training on dealing with the mentally ill.
“In probing the mysterious death of Kenwin Garcia, the Newark Star-Ledger demonstrated the best of public affairs journalism,” judge Jacqui Banaszynski said. “It took on power on behalf of the powerless, was dogged in its pursuit of information that the police wanted to shield, and laid out a case that is as credible as it is incredible. Given the disturbing rash of police-involved deaths, the timing was perfect, and should add to a painful and necessary discussion about the divides in our society.”
The Guild will present the Broun award and a $5,000 check to Baxter at a ceremony Oct. 7.
The Pulitzer-winning Banaszynski, who currently holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism, was joined on the judging panel by 2015 Pulitzer winner Adam Zyglis, editorial cartoonist for the Buffalo News, and former New York Daily News reporter Michael Allen, now a senior writer/editor at the Communications Workers of America. Retired Guild Secretary-Treasurer Carol Rothman served as chair.
Judges reviewed more than 80 entries this year, describing “impressive work that highlighted major injustices, challenged corruption, provided compelling insights into some of the most troubling issues in society, and worked to bring about meaningful change.”
Two other entries were chosen for Awards of Substantial Distinction, with include a $1,000 prize.
“Child Protection Failures in Minnesota” by Brandon Stahl of the Star Tribune “checked all the boxes with great storytelling, underdog quality and statewide impact,” the judges said in a statement. Using the image and story of Eric Dean, “the boy they couldn’t save,” Stahl moved hundreds of readers, the governor and lawmakers to make Minnesota a safer place for children.
Stahl’s stories revealed the state’s softer philosophy of family engagement and a futile accountability system of child mortality reviews that sometimes proved disastrous. The series included an interactive online database that memorialized the 56 children who died since 2005 despite being involved in the child protection system.
The second award of distinction goes to the reporting team of Lisa Song and David Hasemeyer, of Inside Climate News, Jim Morris of The Center for Public Integrity, and Greg Gilderman of The Weather Channel, for “Big Oil, Bad Air.” Combining extensive data analysis with powerful human narratives and vivid graphics and photographs, it revealed the complex and challenging situation of fracking in South Texas. The package included 42 stories, three mini-documentaries, and animation to illustrate how “bad air” can escape from fracking facilities.
The project gave voice to people who felt their health complaints were being ignored, forced state and federal officials to respond to questions about air testing, and highlighted cutting-edge scientific research.
The judges also gave a special honorable mention to “Instead of Therapy, Violence and Chaos,” by David Jackson, Gary Marx and Duaa Eldeib of the Chicago Tribune. Their thorough reporting through first-person accounts of hundreds of mostly African-American Illinois wards revealed assaults and rapes, and the failure of authorities to act. Associate Managing Editor George Papajohn said in nominating the project, “Even before the third day of this five-part series, officials across the state were taking immediate steps to protect wards housed in the state’s 50 facilities and begin a systematic overhaul of Illinois’ mental health programs in ways that could better the lives of thousands of children.”
The judges said the high quality of journalism they reviewed proves that, “For all the bemoaning of the state of the press, there is some amazing work being done.”