COLUMBIA, MO. - Investigative reports that took readers and viewers to the fertile farm fields of California's Central Valley, to the arid sands of the vast Saudi desert and to the dark, dank coal mines of West Virginia captured the top prizes in the 2006 IRE Awards.
The prestigious awards, given by Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., recognize the most outstanding watchdog journalism of the year. The contest covers 15 categories across media platforms and representing a range of market sizes. IRE is a 4,500-member professional and educational organization based at the Missouri School of Journalism. The contest, which began in 1979, received 501 entries this year.
IRE Medals, the top honor bestowed by the organization, were given to:
- Lawrence Wright for the book,"The Looming Tower." This a tour de force of investigative reporting, so skillfully crafted that it reads more like a page-turning crime novel than the exquisitely documented journalistic study it is. Drawn from five years of research, including hundreds of interviews (many conducted in Arabic) and thousands of documents, Wright brings new light and understanding to the genesis of Islamic terrorism and the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. He also exposes shocking communication failures between the FBI and the CIA that left America exposed to the attacks.
- Oriana Zill de Granados, Julia Reynolds and George Sanchez of the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, for "Nuestra Familia, Our Family." This stunning television documentary, which captured the Tom Renner Award for Outstanding Crime Reporting, provides an unprecedented look inside the world of Latino gangs, largely through the experiences of a man in Salinas, Calif., who raised his son to become a gang member. The program provides shockingly raw scenes of the Nuestra Familia gang in action, intricately detailing how it grew from a political movement among Mexican-American farm workers into a violent force that rules both the streets of California agricultural cities and the halls of the California prison system.
- Ken Ward, Jr., of the Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette, for "Mine Safety." After years of covering the coal industry, Ward offers readers an unparalleled portrait of the dangers inside mines and the breakdowns of regulation that made 2006 a deadly year. Using documents and data analysis, this Small Newspapers category winner detailed lax safety procedures, inferior training, poor equipment maintenance and other problems that contributed to deaths at Sago and other mines.
There were two recipients of the group's Freedom of Information award:
- James Odoto, Michele Morgan Bolton, Fred LeBrun, Brendan Lyons, Elizabeth Benjamin, Carol DeMare, J. Robert Port, Rex Smith, Jim McGrath, Howard Healy and John de Rosier of the Times-Union of Albany, N.Y., for "Secret Political Piggy Bank." When the Times-Union set out to expose how New York legislators used secret slush funds called "member items" to fund pet projects, they hit a stone wall. The newspaper sued the Assembly itself to force full disclosure of the financial records and exposed widespread corruption.
- Nils Mulvad, Brigitte Alfter and Jack Thurston for Farmsubsidy.org, a Danish-based Web site that catalogs farm subsidies through the European Union. Danish journalists Mulvad and Alfter and British researcher Thurston conducted a two-year effort to open archives all over Europe to expose the closely guarded secrets of farm subsidies. The resulting information was put on a Web site and made available internationally to reporters and others. It resulted in a number of important stories, including showing how millionaires were among the top recipients and how dairy subsidies were undermining farmers in the Third World.
The other IRE awards, called certificates, are divided into categories based on market or circulation size.
The 2006 IRE Certificate winners were:
- Brian Ross, Rhonda Schwartz, Maddy Sauer, Simon Surowicz, Krista Kjellman, Steve Alperin, Michael Clemente and Christopher Isham of ABCNews.com for "The Mark Foley Investigation." Acting on information other mainstream news organizations downplayed or ignored, they broke the first stories of Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate behavior with congressional pages and relentlessly drove the coverage as it widened into a full-blown congressional scandal.
- Paul Salopek, Kuni Takahashi and Brenda Kilianski of the Chicago Tribune for "A Tank of Gas, A World of Trouble." Striving to understand the full impact of America's addiction to oil, reporter Salopek set out to do what had never been done before: tracking a single tank of gasoline from a Chicago pump back to its origins in Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq. He was able to do so by obtaining secret oil-industry documents called "crude slates," documents that took him around the world to reveal the financial, environmental and human tolls of filling the tank.
- Fred Schulte and June Arney of The Sun newspaper of Baltimore for "On Shaky Ground." They uncovered an obscure, colonial-era law that was being manipulated by lawyers and ruthless landlords to force hundreds of people out of their homes. Many homeowners, it turned out, unknowingly did not own the ground their houses were built upon." Those who own the property rights, known as "ground rents," sometimes used unpaid bills for nominal amounts as an excuse to acquire the houses for a song.
- Jean Rimbach and Kathleen Carroll of The Record of Hackensack, N.J. for "Lessons in Waste." They revealed how the most ambitious and expensive preschool program in America, intended to funnel $2.5 billion to needy children in New Jersey, was being corrupted by greedy middlemen: preschool owners who spent the money on luxury cars, cruises, hotels, gambling and shopping sprees.
- Todd Spivak of the Houston Press for "Run Over by Metro." This alternative weekly's investigation into the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Houston looked at fatalities and serious injuries caused by the public bus system. It found that the agency rejected the safety recommendations of its own investigators, hounded victims to settle accidents and misrepresented its accident statistics.
- William Selway, Martin Z. Braun and David Dietz of Bloomberg Markets magazine, for "Broken Promises. These financial reporters revealed that investment banks and brokers were using billion of dollars in municipal bonds for their own benefit while the public entities they were supposed to be funding got nothing.
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- Chris Hansen, Steve Eckert, Joshua Kuvin, Allan Maraynes, Katherine Chan, Elizabeth Cole and David Corvo of Dateline NBC for "Bitter Pills."In an investigation that took its journalists and cameras across the globe, Dateline NBC documented how counterfeit prescription drugs are invading America's mainstream medicine supply. Going undercover, correspondent Chris Hansen exposed a Chinese crime ring negotiating to sell millions of dollars' worth of fake pills. The bogus pills were such good counterfeits that even experts had a hard time telling the difference.
- Jeff Burnside, Scott Zamost, Felix Castro, Ed Garcia, Pedro Cancio and Maria Carpio of WTVJ-Miami for "Citizenship for Sale." They revealed an illegal scheme that exploited the hopes and fears of unsuspecting immigrants. The operation, run by a South Florida man, purported to sell citizenship in the Pembina Little Shell Band Indian Tribe of North Dakota. Victims were told they would have the right to work legally in the United States if they paid $1,500 for tribal membership. It was a sham.
- Bob Segall, Bill Ditton, Gerry Lanosga and Holly Stephen of WTHR-Indianapolis for "Cause for Alarm." Tornadoes are a fact of life in Central Indiana, and tornado sirens provide warnings that can save lives. So it was shocking to learn what WTHR journalists discovered: County officials in the Indianapolis area didn't know how many sirens they had, where the sirens were located or whether the sirens were operational. The investigation revealed that many were not.
- Daniel Zwerdling, Anne Hawke and Ellen Weiss of National Public Radio for "Mental Anguish and the Military." These radio reports documented in heartbreaking fashion the mental-health toll on American soldiers sent to Iraq and the continuing battle they face with their own superiors when they return.
- Students from the school of journalism at the University of North Texas, for "A Stunning Toll." These students, working with professional advisors, took on a formidable task when they set out to investigate anecdotal reports about the misuse of Tasers by police in Texas. They set out to obtain records from 254 sheriffs' departments and a couple hundred police agencies statewide to analyze use of the stun guns. Though many agencies fought or ignored them, the students eventually obtained thousands of pages of records, which they then scanned and made available on a public Web site.
"This year's winners - and all the entries - demonstrate that investigative reporting is healthy and vibrant despite newsroom cutbacks and a transforming industry," said IRE Executive Director Brant Houston. "Furthermore, the range and sophistication of the work shows that investigative journalism continues to be practiced at a higher level every year."
Contest entries are screened and judged by IRE members who are working journalists. The IRE Awards program is unique among journalism contests in the extent of its efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Work that includes any significant role by a member of the IRE Board of Directors or an IRE contest judge may not be entered in the contest.
This represents a significant sacrifice on the part of the individual - and often an entire newsroom - who may have done outstanding investigative work. For example, work from The Seattle Times, the Houston Chronicle, The Orange County Register, WEWS-TV in Cleveland and WSMV-TV in Nashville was ineligible for entry in this year's contest.
IRE, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to training and supporting journalists who pursue investigative stories and operates the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, a joint program of IRE and the Missouri School of Journalism.
The IRE Awards will be presented at a luncheon on Saturday, June 9, at the 2007 IRE Conference in Phoenix.
Copies of all contest entries are available to IRE members from the IRE Resource Center, which has more than 22,000 investigative stories submitted over the past 27 years. The center can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
See full list of winners, finalists and judges' comments at www.ire.org/contest/06winners.