ProPublica and its reporting partners were honored on Thursday with two Online Journalism Awards. Sponsored by the Online News Association, the awards recognize excellence in digital journalism around the world.
“The Quiet Rooms,” a ProPublica Illinois and Chicago Tribune collaboration, won the University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism. The investigation, by ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi S. Cohen, the Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards and former ProPublica Illinois fellow Lakeidra Chavis, showed how Illinois schools frequently put children in stark “isolated timeout” spaces, or physically restrained them, for reasons that violated state law. Seclusion and physical restraint of children in Illinois is supposed to happen only in limited situations and only for safety reasons. State education officials, however, have failed to monitor the use of these practices, which can inflict trauma and injury, and parents often are told little about what happens to their children.
The series prompted Illinois’ governor and state education officials to commit to sweeping change, beginning with emergency restrictions. State officials banned locked seclusion immediately and put new restrictions on schools’ use of physical restraint, including banning prone restraint. For the first time, Illinois is also monitoring restraint and timeout, with schools required to notify state officials within 48 hours of using the measure. The state also announced plans to invest $7.5 million over the next three years to train Illinois educators on more positive ways to work with students.
“Lawless,” a collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News, a ProPublica Local Reporting Network partner, won the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, medium newsroom. Led by Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins, “Lawless” was the first comprehensive investigation to lay bare Alaska’s failing, two-tiered criminal justice system. Its first story, based on more than 750 public records requests and interviews, found that one in three rural Alaska communities has no local law enforcement of any kind. These indigenous communities are also among the most vulnerable in the United States, with the highest rates of sexual assault, suicide and domestic violence.
The series’ second major installment found that dozens of Alaska communities, desperate for police of any kind, hired officers convicted of felonies, domestic violence, assault and other offenses that would make them ineligible to work in law enforcement or even as security guards anywhere else in the country. Next, Hopkins revealed how the state’s 40-year-old Village Public Safety Officer Program, designed to recruit villagers to work as lifesaving first responders, has failed by every measure. Alaska had quietly denied funding for basic recruitment and equipment costs for these unarmed village officers while publicly claiming to prioritize public safety spending.
Following publication of the first major story, U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited the state and declared the lack of law enforcement in rural Alaska to be a federal emergency. The declaration led the Department of Justice to promise more than $52 million in federal funding for public safety in Alaska villages. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage announced the hiring of additional rural prosecutors, while Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state will post 15 additional state troopers in rural Alaska.
See all of Thursday’s Online Journalism Award winners here.