The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that “A Betrayal” by ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier is one of five finalists for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. The award honors journalism displaying high ethical standards in the pursuit of truth.
Co-published with New York magazine, “A Betrayal” chronicled the experience of Henry, a Long Island high school student who wanted to get away from his brutal gang, MS-13. He worked with law enforcement for about a year, helping police and the FBI arrest his fellow gang members and believing authorities would offer him a new life. Instead, they betrayed him by turning over his file to immigration authorities.
Dreier came across Henry’s case in October 2017 while reporting on Long Island about the casualties of the Trump administration’s bungled crackdown on MS-13. She spent months gaining Henry’s trust. Marked for deportation to his native El Salvador, and then for death as an informant, he and his lawyer decided that a news story might be a last remaining option to save his life.
Henry called Dreier from his jail ward dozens of times in the weeks after their first meeting, whispering into the receiver as other MS-13 members tried to eavesdrop. He arranged for her to be given his cellphone, and she combed through years of text and WhatsApp conversations, as well as exchanges he had with his FBI handler. He helped her make a glossary of Spanish gang slang so that she could understand some coded messages. He also agreed to let ProPublica use a video and photos of him.
As soon as Dreier started reporting, she began thinking about how to balance Henry’s desire to tell his story with the threat to his life. She consulted with gang and law enforcement experts and adopted some restrictions that Henry did not ask for. She left out details about where he might go if he were released from jail, and she refrained from contacting sensitive sources. ProPublica and New York magazine didn’t publish his last name or run photos that might reveal his identity.
The impact from the story was extraordinary. Hundreds reached out, offering Henry jobs and a home, and donating to a fundraiser that brought in $35,000 to help him find a safe place to live once he was released or deported. The Department of Homeland Security opened a civil rights investigation. ICE said it would stop creating detailed gang memos, which jeopardize informants, and offered to move Henry into protective custody. Officials who had refused to testify on his behalf in immigration court suddenly were on board. Amid intense public attention, the judge granted all parties an extension.
In the end, “A Betrayal” didn’t stop Henry’s deportation to El Salvador, but, with the money that readers donated and the extra time allowed by delaying the hearing, he was able to set up a plan to go from there into hiding in a safe third country.
See a list of all five Shadid Award finalists here.