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Two ProPublica Local Reporting Network Projects Named Finalists for Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics

The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced Monday that “Unheard” by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica, as well as “State of Denial” by the Arizona Daily Star and ProPublica, are two of five finalists for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. The series — both projects of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — have been recognized for applying high ethical standards, as well as innovative approaches, to working with sources.

“Unheard” is a centerpiece of the ongoing investigation into sexual violence Alaska by the Daily News and ProPublica. Alaska has the highest rate of sexual assault and child sex abuse in the U.S. Yet for generations it has been an unspoken epidemic. Predators assume, often correctly, that victims will keep their secrets. Unheard — a powerful digital and print series featuring the portraits and stories of 29 Alaskan sexual assault survivors who chose to talk about what they experienced — shattered that silence. Participants came from all walks of life: Alaskans from ages 23 to 73, men and women, urban and rural, Native and non-Native.

The series was a collaboration by Kyle Hopkins, Michelle Theriault Boots, Anne Raup, Marc Lester and Loren Holmes of the Daily News, as well as ProPublica’s Adriana Gallardo, Nadia Sussman and Agnes Chang. It was edited by the Daily News’ David Hulen and Charles Ornstein and Ariana Tobin of ProPublica. The work also represented a new kind of collaborative journalism rooted in trust and respect for the people who stepped forward to share their stories.

The reporting for “Unheard” started in 2018 when, after a string of gut-wrenching sexual assault and murder cases in Alaska, the Daily News asked readers if they would be willing to share their stories of sexual violence. More than 200 people responded. Often, they told of being sexually abused first as children, then repeatedly throughout adulthood. When they reported the crimes, police sometimes failed to investigate or prosecutors declined to file charges. After failing to see justice, some stopped reporting the rapes altogether.

As the team continued talking to survivors throughout 2019, they searched for a way to do justice to those stories and share them in a way that honored the experiences of the sources while adhering to the highest journalistic standards. However, they faced a number of ethical concerns when considering how to proceed with the reporting and publication, from not wanting to retraumatize survivors as they told their stories to how to best corroborate sexual assaults that had never been prosecuted or even investigated.

Ultimately, all of the team’s decisions were guided by two simple principles. First, they would not compromise the reporting standards in any way; every story would have to be subject to the same rigorous corroboration and fact-checking as any other work we publish. Second, they would honor the wishes of the participants at every opportunity and without fail.

At the end of the project, the reporting team arranged a moving Zoom meeting in which the participants could meet one another. And with the participants’ support, the Daily News and ProPublica partnered with the Anchorage Museum on an outdoor display of survivor stories with accompanying audio, so that they could tell their stories to the public and finally be heard.

“State of Denial” was an in-depth investigation into Arizona’s Division of Developmental Disabilities. Arizona has long enjoyed a reputation for having the best services in the country for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. But years of mismanagement, funding shortfalls and turnover at every level of the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities have resulted in a much different story. Stories in the project revealed the demise of independent oversight committees designed to provide outside accountability, as well as the failure of the state to fulfill recommendations made by a governor’s task force on abuse and neglect of people with developmental disabilities.

One of the project’s main goals was to include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the reporting of these stories in meaningful ways, through their own voices. The Arizona Daily Star’s Amy Silverman and Alex Devoid, and ProPublica’s Maya Miller and Beena Raghavendran, reviewed thousands of pages of documents, analyzed data and interviewed more than 100 people with disabilities and their family members as well as advocates, caregivers, attorneys, doctors and bureaucrats to reveal the system’s inadequacies. The project was edited by Jill Jorden Spitz of the Arizona Daily Star and ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller.

The team of journalists realized that it was not enough to feature people with disabilities in the series and commissioned a translation of the articles into “plain language,” which is intended to make the stories streamlined and understandable for people with disabilities. This groundbreaking work was the first time a mainstream media organization made such an attempt, and the editors explained this decision and others they made in a note to readers. The project also included audio recordings of most of the stories in both the original format and plain language for people who have vision or other reading challenges.

Finally, in an attempt to be sure that the targeted audience was being reached, an event culminating the work on this project was held virtually. During the event, the Arizona Daily Star and ProPublica presented excerpts in both original text and plain language. They also interviewed people with disabilities who had been featured in the stories, to ask them what it was like to be included in the project. Impact from the investigation included the story of an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who waited 18 months for a communication device. Her mother got a call the day after the story was published that her daughter’s device was ready.

See a list of all five Shadid Award finalists here.

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