The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced Monday that two ProPublica projects, “Words of Conviction” and “The Night Raids,” are among five finalists for the Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. The Shadid Award honors journalists who exhibit a strong commitment to ethical journalism by acting with integrity, honoring ethical principles in their reporting or resisting pressure to compromise ethical principles.
In “Words of Conviction,” ProPublica reporter Brett Murphy showed how for more than a decade, a police training program known as 911 call analysis and its methods have quietly spread across the country, burrowing into the justice system. Today hundreds of police officers, prosecutors, coroners and dispatchers nationwide have taken a course that purports to teach them how to divine guilt and innocence from word choice, cadence and grammar of people reporting emergencies. His monthslong investigation reveals that this is junk science.
Drawing on thousands of emails and other records, Murphy documented more than 100 cases in 26 states where law enforcement employed these methods. His first story is a gripping narrative about Jessica Logan, a young mother convicted of killing her baby after a detective analyzed her 911 call. Immediately following publication, attorneys from the Exoneration Project and the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences offered to represent Logan in her appeal. The second story profiles the architect of 911 call analysis, Tracy Harpster, and the institutions — most notably, the FBI and prosecutors — that enabled him.
Days after publication of our second story, state lawmakers began making inquiries about how 911 call analysis may have penetrated the justice system and what possible legislative steps may be necessary to stem it. A collective of district attorneys has instructed its members to “reject dangerous pseudoscientific ‘evidence’ like this” and open post-conviction reviews. One newly elected district attorney in Maine is looking into whether the methods have been used in her jurisdiction and warning other elected officials across the state against 911 call analysis.
In “The Night Raids,” freelance journalist Lynzy Billing returned to rural Afghanistan to investigate the murders of her mother and sister in a night raid nearly 30 years earlier. Her journey transforms when she discovers CIA-backed night raids killing hundreds of civilians, with no one being held to account. Billing documented in real time what the United States was doing on the ground in rural pockets of Afghanistan, in places few reporters, if any, had visited. Amid the chaos of war, she meticulously counted the dead, cross-checking her findings with witnesses, local hospitals and a forensic pathologist she recruited to help her. Her reporting focused on one of four CIA-backed Zero Units, known as the 02, over a four-year period.
The survivors of the raids, the witnesses, the family members of those killed, the village elders, the local doctors — all took risks to speak with Billing and share evidence with her. They often didn’t know why they were targeted and whether the Zero Units would return. Billing also spent six months working to convince Afghan commandos and American special operations forces soldiers to share their perspectives. Her tally of the dead — at least 452 civilians killed during 107 raids — is almost certainly an undercount. The resulting work is a singular feat, a deeply intimate tour through what the U.S. wrought during its 20-year war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. military is barred from providing training and equipment to foreign security forces that commit “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” through the Leahy Law. Former Sen. Patrick Leahy called for the law to be applied to all military forces that work with U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, and said an amendment to the law is in the works.
See a list of all five Shadid Award finalists here.