The Society of Professional Journalists announced on Thursday that ProPublica won three Sigma Delta Chi Awards. The awards honor exceptional professional journalism produced in 2021, with entries spanning television and radio broadcasts, newspapers, online news outlets and magazines.
“The Secret IRS Files,” which revealed how America’s wealthiest citizens pay little or nothing in federal taxes, won in the investigative reporting category. Jesse Eisinger, Paul Kiel, Jeff Ernsthausen, Justin Elliott, James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Robert Faturechi, Ken Ward Jr., Ellis Simani, Doris Burke, Agnes Chang, Lucas Waldron, Almudena Toral, Nadia Sussman, Mauricio Rodríguez Pons, Joseph Singer, Sherene Strausberg, Maya Eliahou, Chris Morran and Kristyn Hume contributed to the series.
An anonymous source entrusted the newsroom with a vast trove of data, disclosing the income taxes paid by thousands of the nation’s wealthiest citizens over more than 15 years. Poring over the reams of numbers, the reporting team realized that, in some years, business leaders such as George Soros, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Carl Icahn and Elon Musk owed not a single dollar in income tax to the U.S. Treasury. But these billionaires weren’t cheating on their taxes. They were using completely legal strategies that are far beyond the reach of ordinary wage earners.
Lizzie Presser’s investigation with The New York Times into America’s unregulated shadow foster care system — an informal arrangement in which caseworkers remove kids from their homes and place them with friends or family without going through the courts — won for magazine writing. The first reporter to capture the scope and harms of this widespread but hidden practice, Presser exposed how child protective investigators are coercing parents suspected of mistreatment into sending their children to live with someone they know by threatening to put the kids in foster care if they refuse. This arrangement allows agencies to remove children for reasons that would never hold up in court, bypassing judges, the only officials with the authority to determine whether parents are unfit.
These loose, extrajudicial placements create no path for parents to reunite with their children and don’t come with safeguards like monitoring or background checks that are foundational to formal foster care. Presser’s story features sisters Molly and Heaven Cordell, who were illegally separated from their family when they were 15 and 14 years old. Molly, who had previously been suicidal, received no mental health care, lost access to her medication and was essentially homeless. Days after the story was published, North Carolina’s Cherokee County agreed to a $4 million settlement with Molly, now 21.
“Juvenile Injustice, Tennessee” by ProPublica’s Ken Armstrong and WPLN News’ Meribah Knight won for feature reporting. The series, a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, exposed the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where, under the watch of Judge Donna Scott Davenport, the county locked up kids in nearly half the cases referred to juvenile court. In one incident, 11 kids were handcuffed and arrested at school — the youngest just 8 years old — for watching boys scuffle and not stepping in to stop it, with four of the children booked in juvenile jail. Children in Rutherford County were often jailed for vague “crimes” that did not exist, and many were held in solitary confinement. The county was also jailing a disproportionately high percentage of Black children.
Within days of the first story’s publication, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for a federal civil rights investigation. Middle Tennessee State University, where Davenport taught a criminal justice class, announced that she “is no longer affiliated with the University,” and Gov. Bill Lee’s office called on judicial authorities to conduct a review of the judge. Subsequently, Davenport announced that she would step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.
See the full list of Sigma Delta Chi Award winners here.