The UCLA Anderson School of Management has named four ProPublica projects as finalists for this year’s Gerald Loeb Awards, one of the most prestigious prizes in business and financial journalism.
“The New Debtors Prisons,” a series by Lizzie Presser and Anjali Tsui, is a finalist in the personal finance and consumer reporting category. The stories exposed how high-interest lenders and medical debt collectors have taken over American courtrooms, using them to funnel debtors to jail over unpaid bills. In “When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested,” Presser focused on a courtroom in the small town of Coffeyville, Kansas, where the uninsured and underinsured were routinely shaken down, including a pregnant woman who was jailed after failing to show up at a court hearing over a $230 radiologist bill. A man struggling to pay for his son’s cancer treatment and sick wife’s multiple emergency room visits was arrested twice in four years as he worked multiple jobs to contend with the overwhelming debt. Several newspapers across the state published editorials urging the government to introduce solutions.
In “They Loan You Money. Then They Get a Warrant For Your Arrest,” Tsui revealed how payday and auto-title lenders in Utah have taken over the state’s small claims courts. Collectors can arrest borrowers who miss a court hearing and even keep the bail money. Tsui’s reporting shows how one small company, Loans for Less, dominates the court, with a compliant judge issuing warrants and bail forfeitures on demand. After the story’s publication, Loans for Less said it would stop jailing its customers.
Also a finalist in the personal finance and consumer reporting category is “The TurboTax Trap” by Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel. The series revealed that Intuit, whose TurboTax business has helped the company become a $69 billion Silicon Valley colossus, has spent millions in lobbying to fend off an IRS program that would help most Americans file their taxes for free. The company also used deceptive design, misleading ads and technical tricks to get people to pay to file their taxes, even when they were eligible to file for free. In response to this reporting, the IRS agreed to major reforms, including banning companies from hiding their free products from search engines and scrapping a years-old prohibition on the IRS creating its own online filing system.
“Profiting From the Poor,” a project by MLK50, a partner in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, is a finalist for local. Reporter Wendi C. Thomas investigated Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest hospital system in Memphis, and how it has sued and garnished the wages of thousands of its poorest patients, including its own employees, for unpaid medical bills. After the series, Methodist forgave nearly $12 million in debts owed by thousands of patients.
“The Bad Bet,” a four-part investigation into video gambling across Illinois, is also a finalist for local. A collaboration between former ProPublica Illinois reporters Jason Grotto and Sandhya Kambhampati and WBEZ Public Radio reporter Dan Mihalopoulos, the series uncovered how the gambling industry’s massive growth in Illinois has fueled an increase in gambling addiction among thousands of residents and ceded outsized political influence to industry insiders — all while failing to deliver the financial windfall lawmakers had promised cash-strapped communities around the state. The reporting prompted state legislators to increase funding to combat addiction and strengthen the state gaming board.
See a full list of finalists here.