The Chicago Headline Club announced on Friday that two ProPublica projects are among the three finalists for the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting. The award honors Chicago-area news reporting that calls attention to situations where the public is being harmed or poorly served.
The “COVID-19 Inequities in Chicago” series by ProPublica staff turned an investigative lens on the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations. The cornerstone of the series is a story on the disproportionate toll the pandemic took on Black Chicagoans, illuminating what the emerging patterns of racial disparities in pandemic deaths exposed about longstanding flaws in the health care system. ProPublica was the first news organization to report that the coronavirus pandemic had left some seniors dangerously isolated in public and subsidized housing around the city, with only a patchwork support system in place to help them. Early coverage also included reporting on the treatment of factory workers and temp agency employees during the pandemic, documenting the working conditions that made many feel unsafe and identifying the lack of government action in addressing concerns about outbreaks.
The team of reporters also conducted an analysis of COVID-19 infections in Chicago that showed how crowded conditions within homes, not housing density, better explained why some areas of the city, primarily those on the West and South Sides, saw higher rates of infection than others. ProPublica was also the first to report that opioid overdoses had spiked in Cook County during the pandemic. Six weeks after that report published, county officials announced plans to address the crisis.
The other finalist, “Grace: A Failure in Michigan’s Juvenile Justice System,” led by reporter Jodi Cohen, examined the story of Grace, a 15-year-old Black girl who was jailed for not doing her online schoolwork after her school in suburban Detroit shifted to remote learning at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, and the deeply flawed juvenile justice system that allowed her detention.
Working quickly, mindful that Grace’s sentence would keep the teen in the facility for many more months, Cohen dug into the case to obtain records and conduct interviews to determine what had happened. The first story in the series attracted immediate global attention, prompting a #FreeGrace movement on social media, an online petition supported by more than 350,000 people, and protests calling for her release. Members of Congress also asked the U.S. departments of Education and Justice to intervene. Six days after the investigation was published, the judge involved in the case denied a motion for Grace’s release, but the Michigan Court of Appeals soon overturned that decision. Less than three weeks after the initial story came out, Grace was released from detention.
Cohen and reporter Duaa Eldeib also conducted a broader investigation of the state’s juvenile justice system. They discovered that Michigan regularly locks up juveniles for minor offenses and found that children of color are disproportionately represented at nearly every point within the system. ProPublica’s reporting sparked widespread impact, with state lawmakers and judges pledging reform in 2021.
The Chicago Headline Club has also named ProPublica a finalist for 13 Peter Lisagor Awards, which honor the best journalism produced across the Chicago region.
Read more about the Watchdog Award here.