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ProPublica and Partners Honored by the Society of Professional Journalists

ProPublica and its reporting partners were honored with four awards by the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Price Kids Pay,” a collaboration between ProPublica and the Chicago Tribune, won the 2023 Ethics in Journalism Award. The recognition honors journalists or news organizations that perform in an outstanding ethical manner and demonstrate the ideals of the SPJ Code of Ethics. ProPublica’s “Words of Conviction” investigation and two partner projects, a collaboration that examined Operation Lone Star, a multibillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded border initiative, and a series of investigations focused on military injustices, were honored with Sunshine Awards. The annual prize recognizes individuals and groups for their notable contributions to reporting on open government.

In “The Price Kids Pay,” ProPublica reporters Jodi S. Cohen and Jennifer Smith Richards (who was then at the Tribune) examined school-based ticketing in Illinois, documenting nearly 12,000 tickets issued to students from 2019 to 2021, with fines as high as $750. In an effort to stop overly punitive school discipline practices, Illinois legislators had previously prohibited schools from fining students for minor misbehavior. Reporting by Cohen and Smith Richards exposed how schools found a loophole in this policy. Instead of fining students directly, schools referred students to police, who then issued tickets. Dozens of school districts, the reporters also found, broke state law by referring students to police for truancy. Some municipalities sent families to collections over unpaid debt from student tickets.

By obtaining obscure public records and attending public hearings that otherwise drew little attention, reporters became privy to many details about young people forced into the process, including the students’ ages, their alleged offenses and how much money they owed after being ticketed.

Reporters found themselves facing a pressing ethical question: How much detail about young people should be included in the journalism in order to expose the systemic injustice?

Reporters used only the first names of students in most cases and avoided using parents’ last names if doing so would easily identify their child. Reporters took special care to consider the potential impact on a young person of participating in the investigation even when the person was 18 or over. For the photography, the news organizations did not take photographs of any young person without the family’s permission — even at public hearings where photography was permitted.

The investigation prompted Illinois education officials to call for an end to school-based ticketing, the state attorney general to initiate a civil rights investigation into a suburban school district northwest of Chicago, and state lawmakers to rethink when police should be involved in student discipline. Subsequent stories in the series revealed how Black students were disproportionately likely to be ticketed and looked closely at the Garrison School in central Illinois, where employees call police on students every other school day, on average. Following the investigation, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into Garrison’s school district.

In addition, legislators have been pushing to amend the state’s school code to stop school personnel from working with police to issue tickets to students for incidents that can be addressed through a school’s disciplinary process.

In “Words of Conviction,” reporter Brett Murphy showed how for more than a decade, a police training program known as 911 call analysis and its methods have quietly spread across the country, burrowing into the justice system. Today, hundreds of police officers, prosecutors, coroners and dispatchers nationwide have taken a course that purports to teach them how to divine guilt and innocence from word choice, cadence and grammar of people reporting emergencies. His monthslong investigation revealed that this is junk science.

Drawing on thousands of emails and other records, Murphy documented more than 100 cases in 26 states where law enforcement employed these methods. His first story is a gripping narrative about Jessica Logan, a young mother convicted of killing her child after a detective analyzed her 911 call. Immediately following publication, attorneys from the Exoneration Project and the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences offered to represent Logan in her appeal. The second story profiles the architect of 911 call analysis, Tracy Harpster, and the institutions — most notably, the FBI and prosecutors — that enabled him.

Days after publication of our second story, state lawmakers began making inquiries about how 911 call analysis may have penetrated the justice system and what possible legislative steps may be necessary to stem its spread. A collective of district attorneys has instructed its members to “reject dangerous pseudoscientific ‘evidence’ like this” and open post-conviction reviews. One newly elected district attorney in Maine is looking into whether the methods have been used in her jurisdiction and warning other elected officials across the state against 911 call analysis.

In a series of investigations about Operation Lone Star, Perla Trevizo and Lomi Kriel from the ProPublica-Tribune team and Andrew Rodriguez Calderón and Keri Blakinger from The Marshall Project exposed that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s claims about the border initiative’s success were based on shifting metrics that included crimes with no connection to the border and drug seizures and arrests from counties that received no additional funding or resources from the operation.

Tribune reporter Jolie McCullough’s work showed, for the first time, how misdemeanor trespassing charges against migrants entering the country quickly became the largest share of the operation’s arrests despite Abbott’s claims that it was capturing dangerous criminals.

Meanwhile, Tribune reporter James Barragán teamed up with Davis Winkie of the Military Times to examine Abbott’s deployment of National Guard members to the border. Their deeply sourced reporting identified a series of problems, including delayed payments to National Guard members, a shortage of critical equipment and poor living conditions. They obtained a leaked survey that showed widespread dissatisfaction among National Guard members assigned to the operation.

Trevizo and Marilyn Thompson of ProPublica also delved into how Abbott’s decadeslong efforts to amass power culminated with the launch of the operation, at times allowing him to circumvent the GOP-controlled state Legislature and override local officials. The Department of Justice has launched an investigation into allegations of civil rights abuses that had come to light through Operation Lone Star reporting.

After decades of resistance from military leaders and lawmakers, Congress reached a deal in December 2021 on a broad overhaul of the military justice system, stripping commanders of most of their authority to prosecute sexual assaults and several other types of criminal cases.

While lawmakers celebrated the narrowly crafted reforms, reporters Megan Rose, Vianna Davila, Lexi Churchill and Ren Larson methodically unraveled major gaps in the compromise legislation, as well as commanders’ continued outsized influence over the military justice system. Their work brought transparency and accountability to a military justice system that largely operates outside of the public eye.

ProPublica sued the Navy last year for refusing to release court records in a high-profile arson case. In 2020, the USS Bonhomme Richard, a $1 billion amphibious assault ship, burned for more than four days and was destroyed. A ProPublica investigation showed the Navy prosecuted a sailor with scant evidence and ignored a judge’s recommendation to drop the case.

Seaman Recruit Ryan Mays was acquitted at his court-martial in September 2022. ProPublica’s lawsuit was successful in getting the Navy to release hundreds of pages of court-martial documents in the Mays case. Mays’ defense lawyers credited ProPublica’s work in part for the outcome. It was the culmination of a two-year battle for Mays, who spent 55 days in a brig after he was arrested.

The ongoing lawsuit in the Mays case is currently challenging the Navy’s overall policy to keep most records and pretrial hearings secret. Congress has repeatedly made clear that the armed services must comply with the principle of public access to courts “and provide greater transparency, but the Navy has refused to do so,” ProPublica’s lawsuit states. The Navy asked the court to partially dismiss ProPublica’s lawsuit. ProPublica opposed that motion in July.

The process by which commanders decide whether service members like Mays should be detained while awaiting trial was the focus of a ProPublica and Texas Tribune investigation that was published in August, one month before Mays’ court-martial. In a first-of-its-kind analysis by ProPublica and the Tribune, the news organizations revealed that Army soldiers accused of sexual assault are less than half as likely to be locked up ahead of trial as those accused of offenses like drug use and distribution, disobeying an officer or burglary.

See a list of honorees for the Ethics in Journalism Award and Sunshine Award.

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