Two ProPublica projects have been honored with the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2020 Salute to Excellence Awards.
An investigation on the dispossession of African American landowners in the South, co-published with The New Yorker, won in the Magazine-Investigative category. Reporter Lizzie Presser came to the story after reading in a newspaper article that African Americans made up only 1% of the nation’s farmers. After poring over academic articles on the vulnerability of African American landowners who had, for generations, passed down land without a will, she decided to investigate the legal loopholes and systemic abuses that permitted the seizure of these so-called heirs’ properties.
She zeroed in on the story of Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels of North Carolina. The brothers had spent years in jail for refusing to leave waterfront property that had been in their family for a century, land that had been bought by developers without their knowledge. Presser also examined all cases of families who were dispossessed of their heirs’ property in the past decade in one hard-hit North Carolina county, sifting through shelves of files housed in the county courthouse to build a database out of the paper records. She found that 42% of the cases involved black families, despite the fact that only 6% of the county’s population is black.
After the story was published, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to immediately implement heirs’ property provisions that were secured in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Shortly after, the USDA announced two listening sessions on heirs’ property to assist with a relending program to clear titles and address obstacles to gaining access to certain government programs. The U.S. Senate and House also passed an amendment to help heirs’ property owners clear their titles. The amendment includes $5 million in funding for lending organizations to provide loans to landowners who are seeking to clear up or consolidate ownership, helping them pay for legal assistance or obtain necessary documentation.
“Profiting From the Poor,” a collaboration with the ProPublica Local Reporting Network by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, won in the Online Project: News category. Written by MLK50 editor Wendi C. Thomas, the investigation exposed the predatory debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, the largest health care system in Memphis, Tennessee. Thomas showed how Methodist was suing and garnishing the wages of thousands of patients, including many of its own employees, for unpaid hospital bills.
Thomas began her investigation with a question that has long haunted Memphis, the second-poorest large city in the nation: What keeps poor people poor? Over a five-year period, Thomas found that the faith-based Methodist sued more than 8,300 patients for unpaid hospital bills. The lawsuits made it hard, if not impossible, for poor people to make ends meet.
Hospital officials stonewalled interview requests and refused to answer dozens of questions. Court administrators provided years’ worth of court records electronically, but ProPublica’s data team discovered that the records were incomplete. It took weeks of manual work to assemble a full picture of how many people were being sued.
Days after the stories ran, Methodist suspended its lawsuits against poor patients. It launched a 30-day review and announced sweeping changes that included dramatically augmenting its financial assistance policies, doubling the threshold at which people qualify for discounted or free care; curtailing lawsuits against its own employees and anyone, regardless of insurance status, whose household income is less than 250% of the federal poverty line; and increasing the wages of its lowest-paid workers to at least $15 an hour by 2021. All told, Methodist forgave nearly $12 million in debts owed by thousands of patients.
A full list of NABJ Salute to Excellence Award winners can be found here.