The Society of Professional Journalists is bestowing its Ethics in Journalism Award on Anthony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman; Jodi S. Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards of ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune; and William Wan of The Washington Post.
This award honors journalists or news organizations that perform in an outstanding ethical manner demonstrating the ideals of the SPJ Code of Ethics. Winners are selected by members of the SPJ Professional Standards and Ethics Committee and SPJ Board of Directors.
Anthony Plohetski of the Austin American-Statesman is being recognized for his reporting during the Uvalde school shooting. Plohetski was the first journalist to obtain an image from inside the school in June 2022. He also obtained a full 77-minute video that showed police officers not entering the classroom as police have been trained to do.
In the letter nominating Plohetski’s reporting, Manny García, executive editor of the Austin American-Statesman, said Plohetski followed the SPJ Code of Ethics to minimize harm, balance the public’s need for information against potential harm and to seek truth and report it. Once the video was obtained, the newsroom focused on attempting to reach the family members of the 21 victims to ensure they knew they would be publishing the videos.
On July 12, 2022, the Statesman published an edited portion of the video with a narrative written by Plohetski. The entire video was also released with minor edits for privacy, as requested by the victim’s families. Plohetski is being honored for showing truth and accountability in his reporting.
Jodi S. Cohen of ProPublica and Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune are being recognized for the project “The Price Kids Pay,” examining how some Illinois schools found loopholes to enforce school discipline. Cohen and Richards traveled thousands of miles to hearings and submitted public records requests but encountered ethical challenges. They faced a pressing ethical question of how much detail about young people should be included to expose the injustice. The nomination letter written by ProPublica Senior Editor George Papajohn and Chicago Tribune Investigations Editor Kaarin Tisue noted how the reporters took care to minimize harm.
“Publishing students’ names alongside the reasons they were involved with police would create another long-lasting public record — one that college admissions officers or potential employers could easily find through an internet search,” Papajohn and Tisue wrote.
Cohen and Richards ended up only using the first names of students and avoided using parent’s last names if doing so would easily identify their child. Those who agreed to use their full names were briefed on the long-term implications of being identified. The news organizations made sure to not take any photos without the family’s permission. The project led to a new Illinois bill being proposed to stop ticketing in schools and the U.S. Department of Education has opened a civil rights investigation into one of the schools.
Washington Post reporter William Wan is being recognized for a series of stories that explored systemic problems for mentally ill youth but also captured the struggle of individuals trapped in those systems. The ethical challenges he faced revolved around intimately reporting on suicide and mental health without further traumatizing the victims, causing a contagion effect or making sure the interviewees weren’t passively written about.
“The interviews for these stories were among the most intense of my career. Many involved asking teens and young adults about the most traumatic episode of their life — the moment they tried to end it,” Wan wrote.
The subjects of the stories included a mother giving up custody of her son to face court charges to get him help; Yale University’s inadequacy in dealing with mental illness; an autistic teen waiting months in the ER for a psychiatric bed; and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge’s reputation for being “a magnet for suicides in the region.” Wan’s reporting prompted change. Child-welfare workers helped get the son into a long-term treatment facility; Yale announced major changes, reversing its policies on nearly every issue that was raised; the Maryland Hospital Association called for urgent action; and local leaders discussed the urgent need for suicide barriers on the Bay Bridge.
The winners will be honored during the President’s Awards Banquet at the SPJ23 Journalism Convention in Las Vegas, Sept. 30.
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