The White House Correspondents’ Association announced that ProPublica’s “Disaster in the Pacific” series won the organization’s inaugural Katharine Graham Award for Courage and Accountability. The honor recognizes coverage of subjects and events with significant national or regional importance, with special consideration given to reporting undertaken despite adversity.
“The Quiet Rooms,” a joint series by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune that exposed the practice in Illinois schools of restraining or locking children away in isolation rooms, received an honorable mention for the same award.
In “Disaster in the Pacific,” ProPublica reporters T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi centered on three deadly accidents in the Navy and Marines in 2017 and 2018. They exposed America’s vaunted 7th Fleet as being in crisis with broken ships and planes, poor training, and multiple warnings ignored by its commanders. The costs: 17 dead sailors in crashes involving Navy warships, and six Marines killed in a training accident.
In a series of reconstructions of the tragedies, ProPublica provided the first full accounting of culpability, tracing responsibility to the highest uniformed and civilian ranks of the Navy. ProPublica spent 18 months on the investigation. The work came to draw on secret records, eyewitness interviews, brave whistleblowers, data analysis, ship blueprints, military manuals, a documentary video and state-of-the-art digital design.
The first article in the series, “Fight the Ship,” reconstructed a 2017 collision involving the USS Fitzgerald, one of the deadliest accidents in the history of the Navy. The story showed that the accident was entirely preventable, and that the Navy’s senior leadership had endangered the warship by sending a shorthanded and undertrained crew to sea with outdated equipment. To show readers what happened, designer Xaquín G.V. and ProPublica investigations producer Lucas Waldron used geodata on the ships’ locations to map the path of each vessel and created a graphic that simulated the crash. The team also collected radar images, ship blueprints, hand-drawn images made by surviving sailors and video taken inside the ship, which allowed them to portray the disaster from the perspective of the sailors onboard. For a story on the collision of the USS John S. McCain, ProPublica created a 3D replica of the ship's flawed navigation system console, which allowed readers to concretely understand how the system was supposed to work and how easily it sowed chaos.
Another story captured the Marine Corps’ multiple failures that were responsible for the deaths of six men in a nighttime training exercise 15,000 feet above the Pacific — an accident that senior leaders had been warned was possible, even likely. Katie Campbell, Joseph Singer, Waldron, Matt Huynh and MacGregor Campbell created an animated short documentary. Using a combination of on-camera interview, 3D animation, 2D illustration and atmospheric footage, the film brought the excruciating hours of a needless tragedy to light. The team reconstructed the moments leading up to the crash, the crash itself and the botched search-and-rescue effort.
The series also illuminated how the Navy’s reckless management of the 7th Fleet was measured not only in fatalities, but also in the hurt and shame of the rank-and-file sailors whom the Navy blamed and prosecuted for the accidents. The Navy’s prosecution of Cmdr. Bryce Benson, a captain on the USS Fitzgerald, for what were clearly systemic shortcomings left many of its own furious and demoralized.
Joseph Sexton, Tracy Weber, Agnes Chang, Kengo Tsutsumi, Ruth Baron, David Sleight, Sisi Wei, Claire Perlman, Joshua Hunt and Nate Schweber also contributed to this series.
Weeks after the first story’s publication, the House Armed Services Committee convened a panel to challenge senior Navy leaders over their claims that they had been fully truthful about its failings and its efforts at reform. In light of ProPublica’s reporting on the improper role that the Navy’s top commander played in the prosecution of Benson, a captain on the USS Fitzgerald, the Navy dropped all criminal charges. U.S. and NATO Navy commands throughout the world have ordered sailors and officers to read the ProPublica accounts as part of training and education.
See the other winners of this year’s White House Correspondents’ Association journalism award winners here.