The ProPublica series “Zero Tolerance” on the Trump administration’s family separation policy was awarded on Tuesday the first-ever Peabody Catalyst Award for bringing immediate change to the practice.
“No fake news here,” said Jeffrey Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards. “Rather, ProPublica worked with local sources to find and publicize incontrovertible evidence of government policies — and their horrific application — that the government was also overtly downplaying. That is what courageous and effective journalism looks like.”
“Zero Tolerance,” which uncovered conditions at Border Patrol detention centers where thousands of children separated from their parents and unaccompanied minors have been sent, began with a source who had an explosive piece of information. Wanting to share it with a reporter they could trust, the source chose ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson, who has spent nearly 20 years writing about the consequences of federal policy on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Their tip: nearly eight minutes of heart-wrenching audio from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility.
The audio was obtained weeks after the launch of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy that prosecuted people who illegally entered the country and took away the children they brought with them. Authorities had allowed only tightly controlled tours of the detention facilities holding these children, who were not allowed to speak to journalists. The recording — the unmistakable sounds of children, recently separated from their families, sobbing and desperately begging for their parents — exposed the reality of the policy and what was happening in facilities closed to public view.
Thompson convinced the source, who initially demanded that ProPublica publish an edited version, to allow the audio to run in full to guard against accusations of manipulation. This initial story set off a political firestorm and spurred an immediate change in the immigration debate. Congressional lawmakers cited ProPublica’s audio as they condemned the administration’s policy. The children’s cries were played on the floors of the House and Senate. Protesters blared the recording at demonstrations around the country.
Facing the uproar, and despite his previous insistence that he would stand by the policy, within 48 hours of ProPublica’s story, the president signed an executive order to end it and keep migrant families together. A federal judge in California ordered that parents and children be reunited within 30 days. By July, the child heard in the recording pleading to call her aunt, a 6-year-old girl from El Salvador named Jimena, was reunited with her mother.
ProPublica then mobilized to look deeper into how children had been affected. Dozens of reporters in our newsrooms in New York and Chicago pitched in and filed public records requests for police reports and call logs concerning more than 100 shelters for immigrant children nationwide. Based on this data, reporters Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders published stories showing hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse, fights, missing children and a lack of oversight, a situation one child psychiatrist called a “gold mine” for predators. This brought to light for the first time hundreds of allegations of sex abuse, fights and missing children.
In shelter inspection records obtained through Arizona’s freedom of information law, Sanders found a reference to child molestation and tracked down the case of a shelter worker accused of molesting eight children. The Justice Department had kept quiet about it. The stories, along with coverage by other media outlets, quickly upended the Trump administration’s assertions that the shelters were havens akin to summer camps and boarding schools. Arizona’s governor ordered a statewide inspection, leading to the shutdown of two centers run by Southwest Key after the nonprofit failed to provide proof that its employees had completed background checks. Top Republican and Democratic senators demanded an investigation, and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general is now investigating employee background checks and the treatment of children in the nation’s shelter system.
To help readers understand their proximity to the facilities and see how many children have been spread throughout the country, ProPublica’s research, data and engagement teams created a map of 100 facilities holding immigrant children, including shelters and foster care centers. An accompanying callout urged readers to write in with tips on conditions in those facilities and the conditions inside. For this crowdsourced effort, ProPublica partnered with nine news organizations across four countries, including BuzzFeed News, Univision News, The Intercept, PBS Frontline, The Texas Tribune, Animal Político (Mexico), El Faro (El Salvador), and Plaza Pública and El Periódico (both in Guatemala). Published in English, Spanish and Portuguese, the callout generated more than 200 tips. As a direct result of this journalism, at least four families were reunited.
In December, months after “zero tolerance” was reversed, Thompson reported that border agents had resumed the removal of some children from their parents by claiming that the parents were criminals and thus a danger to their children. Her story focused on a case in which the Department of Homeland Security claimed, without evidence, that a Salvadoran man was a gang member and separated him from his 4-year-old son. Two weeks after the investigation was published, and 11 weeks after they had been separated, the child was returned to his father.
Tracy Weber, Alexandra Zayas, Claudia Milne, Louise Kiernan, Steve Mills, Adriana Gallardo, Melissa Sanchez, Duaa Eldeib, Jodi S. Cohen, Kavitha Surana, Robert Faturechi, Nadia Sussman, Alex Mierjeski, Claire Perlman, Ken Schwencke, Decca Muldowney, Derek Kravitz, Jess Ramirez, Rachel Glickhouse, María Sánchez Díez and Lilia Chang also contributed to the series.
See a list of all this year’s Peabody Award winners here.