Coverage of Heroin Addiction, Human Rights, and Sexual Assault Among 17 Winners in 16 Categories
On February 14th, Long Island University (LIU) announced the winners of the 67th annual George Polk Awards in Journalism, honoring reporters who advanced vital national conversations on race and gender relations with their masterful investigative reporting in 2015. The George Polk Awards are conferred annually to honor special achievement in journalism. The awards place a premium on investigative and enterprising reporting that gains attention and achieves results. They were established in 1949 by Long Island University to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war.
The winners of this year’s George Polk Awards reported on such momentous stories as the deadly use of force by police, the re-segregation of America’s public schools, and the difficulties women face in pursuing accusations of rape, subjects that made headlines across the country this past year.
Other winners among the 17 awards in 16 categories showed how companies sidestep class action suits by consumers and how foreign workers inAsia are brutally conscripted to work in the seafood industry on ships and on a remote island.
Reporting by the recipients also upended claims from a new, heavily invested company about an innovative blood test, exposed a drug lab’s profiteering from deceptive marketing of dubious pain creams and highlighted the agonizing situation of heroin addicts denied access to a proven treatment. Still other winners documented little control or accountability in a celebrated American military unit and snapped front-line photos of damage done to an Afghani hospital by a U.S. airstrike.
Winners of the 2015 awards will be honored at a luncheon ceremony at The Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan on Friday, April 8. The journalist and author Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who will read the award citations, will also moderate this year’s David J. Steinberg Seminar of the George Polk Awards, “Reporting on Race in America,” Thursday evening, April 7 at LIU Brooklyn’s Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts. She will be joined by three 2015 George Polk laureates, Wesley Lowery, national reporter for The Washington Post covering law enforcement, justice, race and politics; Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter specializing in education who won the award for a report on “This American Life” and is now on the staff of The New York Times magazine, and Jamie Kalven, writer and human rights activist who has reported extensively on police abuses in Chicago. The seminar, which starts at 6:30, is free and open to the public.
“We received a record 580 nominations from news organizations,” said John Darnton, curator of the George Polk Awards. “Many were about police killings and police misconduct across the board.” Darnton also noted, “Another striking element common to several of the winners was that the story they came up with was not the one they set out to find. A reporter following up on the death of a man in police custody in Baltimore is diverted to an investigation of ‘structured settlements.’ Another trying to discern why heroin addiction is so prevalent in a small town in Kentucky winds up with a national story about how addicts are denied effective treatment. And a TV producer checking back on a pharmacy scandal tied to unsafe injections stumbles on another involving fraudulent profiteering. These awards speak well of journalists who ply their craft with open eyes — and open minds.“
Below are the winners of the 2015 George Polk Awards:
The award for Foreign Reporting will be shared by a team of four reporters from the Associated Press,Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan, for a series on the Thai fishing industry, “Seafood from Slaves,” and Ian Urbina of The New York Times for “The Outlaw Ocean,” a six-part series that portrayed a largely unchecked pattern of lawlessness on the high seas.
The AP reporters documented the plight of impoverished men from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailandlured into captivity, locked in cages, beaten, and forced to perform dangerous work with little sleep to catch and process seafood destined for U.S. consumers and their pets. They found the graves of some workers who did not survive, buried on a remote island under false names. As a result of the AP reporting, more than 2,000 captives were released, ships were seized, and businesses closed, American companies faced calls to cease selling slave-tainted seafood, and authorities in Washington, at the United Nations, and across Asia began seeking new ways to confront and control the abuses.
During the year and a half reporting the stories, Urbina traveled through Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, much of that time spent on fishing ships, chronicling a diversity of crimes offshore, including murder of stowaways, intentional dumping, illegal fishing, stealing of ships, stranding of crews, and murder with impunity. Talking his way onto fishing ships at considerable risk, he also related firsthand stories of the plight of indentured Cambodian boys, a deckhand shackled by the neck, and Filipinos living in squalor who endured beatings, lost fingers to infection, and were forced to swallow amphetamines to work longer hours. Urbina secured and investigated a video of four men shot to death at sea before dozens of witnesses, including some who then celebrated and posed on camera. The reporting also took readers aboard a ship operated by environmental activists in the culmination of a 10,000-mile chase leading to the sinking of a notorious pirate trawler that had eluded Interpol and other authorities for a decade. The series spurred Congressional hearings and testimony, class-action litigation against the seafood industry, and, abroad, a criminal investigation and convictions.
The award for National Reporting will go to The Washington Post for an exhaustive study of killings by police officers. The project found that 990 people were shot and killed by on-duty police officers in the U.S. in 2015 and also produced a trove of original data. After discovering that FBI statistics on deaths at police hands were unreliable and incomplete, the Post assigned staffers from across the newsroom to compile and analyze their own list. Post reporters found that most of those who died were armed white men shot under threatening and sometimes heroic circumstances, but also uncovered some troubling indicators. A quarter of those killed were suicidal or had a history of mental illness, more than 50 of the officers had killed before and while only 9% were not armed, unarmed black men were seven times more likely to die at police hands than unarmed whites.
Jamie Kalven of Invisible Institute will be honored with the award for Local Reporting for “Sixteen Shots,” published online by Slate Magazine last February. Operating on a tip about the October 2014 police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Kalven located a witness who said McDonald was not lunging at them with a knife as Chicago police reported but “shying away” and that an officer repeatedly fired into his immobilized body. After learning from a source close to the medical examiner’s office that McDonald had been shot 16 times, Kalven obtained the boy’s autopsy report and pressed for release of a video of the incident. “An autopsy tells a story,” his 2,000-word story began, concluding with great prescience: “The McDonald footage will come out, but a great deal turns on how it comes out… If the city resists releasing the video until legally compelled to do so, outrage at what it depicts will be compounded by outrage that the city knew its contents (and the autopsy results) in the immediate aftermath of the incident yet withheld that information from the public. The fate of Laquan McDonald — a citizen of Chicago so marginalized he was all but invisible until the moment of his death — has thus become entwined with that of Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel. It presents his administration with a defining moment.” Continue reading