Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation announced that “The Tax Divide,” an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois, is the winner of the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism. Written by ProPublica Illinois reporter Jason Grotto, the series shed light on the complex issue of property taxes. ProPublica Illinois data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati and Chicago Tribune reporter Ray Long also contributed to the work.
For decades, Cook County residents and business owners had suspected their property taxes were based on inaccurate assessments, overvaluing many low-priced properties while undervaluing many higher priced ones. Grotto studied the arcane system for two years, reading thousands of documents, analyzing more than 100 million computer records, and interviewing dozens of experts, attorneys and property owners affected by deeply flawed assessments. Grotto, who started the project as a Chicago Tribune staff writer and continued his investigation after joining ProPublica Illinois, exposed widespread inequities and egregious errors in assessments that punished small businesses and poor homeowners, while giving the wealthy unsanctioned tax breaks and lining the pockets of politically connected tax attorneys.
Within weeks of publication of the first stories, the county’s inspector general launched an investigation of the assessor’s office. The Cook County board required Assessor Joseph Berrios to testify at a public hearing, and state and local lawmakers introduced legislation to limit campaign contributions to the assessor. Citing our reporting, three prominent public interest law offices sued Berrios and the county in December, alleging violations of state and federal civil rights and housing laws. And in the Illinois primary election last month, fairness in the property tax system was a major issue — and Berrios was voted out.
“This series addresses fairness in two essential ways,” say Taylor Award judge Rob Davis. “It unravels a systematically unfair system, one that benefits the rich over the poor. It humanizes the problem, turning what could be an insanely arcane numbers story into something that has narrative flair, with villains and victims.”
ProPublica’s “Ignoring Innocence: The Wrongfully Convicted Forced Into Plea Deals” by Megan Rose was selected as one of two Taylor Award finalists. The series took a close look at legal cases involving a coercive deal known as an Alford plea. Pushed by prosecutors who don’t want to admit their mistakes, defendants imprisoned for crimes they did not commit are sometimes told they have to plead guilty if they want to be released from jail.
“[Rose] takes a legal trick and clearly reveals the human stories of suffering left in its wake,” Davis said of the series. “This story demonstrates fairness by spotlighting a remarkably unfair system, exposing its inhumanity for everyone to see.”
Learn more about the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism here.