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.”
Terrence McCoy of The Washington Post will be recognized with the award for Regional Reporting for his series of reports from Maryland and Virginia on companies operating in the shadows of the financial industry that buy the rights to court-ordered compensation from unsophisticated victims for a fraction of their value. McCoy stumbled on the practice, after learning that Freddie Gray, whose death in police custody sparked riots in Baltimore, sold his lead poisoning settlement for dimes on the dollar. McCoy soon learned there were many other mentally disabled victims of lead poisoning who had made similar deals. He then found a Virginia man badly disfigured in an electric heater explosion as a child who sold 30 years’ worth of a $10,000monthly payments for so little — one deal exchanged $844,000 in payments for $40,000 — that he was broke and homeless in two years. These and other accounts have prompted reform in Maryland and calls for a ban on such practices in Virginia.
The award for Financial Reporting will go to John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal whose investigation of Theranos, Inc. raised serious doubts about claims by the firm and its celebrated 31-year-old founder,Elizabeth Holmes, that its new procedure for drawing and testing blood was a transformational medical breakthrough in wide use at the firm’s labs. Carreyrou’s well-researched stories, reported in the face of threats of lawsuits and efforts to pressure some sources to back off of their accounts, led to a reevaluation of Theranos’ prospects among investors and have been followed by regulatory actions against the company and widespread discussion that publications and institutions from Fortune and The New Yorker to Harvard and the White House may have been too quick to hail Holmes, a Stanford dropout whose personal wealth at the height of her startup’s rise was an estimated $4.5 billion, as a success story in the tradition of Steve Jobs, Bill Gatesand Mark Zuckerberg.
The award for Education Reporting will recognize Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner, and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times for “Failure Factories,” a deeply researched series that traced the decline of black student achievement in Pinellas County to a 2007 school board rezoning decision that effectively re-segregated five schools. After spending 18 months analyzing data on black student performance and behavior, interviewing hundreds of students and teachers from the affected schools and gathering documents from the 20 largest school systems in Florida, Times reporters demonstrated that black students had the least qualified teachers, attended school on the most violent campuses and were far more likely to be suspended for minor infractions. After the series ran U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan flew to St. Petersburg to meet with black families, accusing the district of “education malpractice.”
Ken Armstrong of The Marshall Project and T. Christian Miller of ProPublica will receive the award forJustice Reporting for an unusual joint effort, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” Miller was pursuing a story on how police failure to communicate across jurisdictions prolonged the rampage of a serial rapist in Coloradowhen he learned the man had been tied to the rape of an 18-year-old girl in a Seattle suburb. He then discovered that Armstrong was chasing a story about how skeptical police there tried to convince the victim of that crime that she had only dreamt of the attack — and when she persisted in seeking redress charged her for falsely reporting it. With their news organizations’ approval Armstrong and Miller joined forces to complete a powerful 12,000-word narrative that demonstrated how dogged detective work in Colorado helped right a wrong in Washington and led to a 300-year sentence for the rapist. It is Armstrong’s fourth Polk Award. He won at theChicago Tribune for a 1999 report that defendants convicted in 12 Illinois capital cases were subsequently exonerated and twice at the Seattle Times. This is Miller’s second Polk Award after winning in 2010 for Radio Reporting.
Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Michael Corkery, and Robert Gebeloff of The New York Times will be honored with the award for Legal Reporting for “Beware the Fine Print,” a series of articles on how corporations evade legal responsibility by adding arbitration clauses to tens of millions of consumer and employee contracts, compelling plaintiffs to take disputes to private arbitration often rigged in the company’s favor and banning them from joining class action lawsuits. “From birth to death,” the reporters wrote, “the use of arbitration has crept into nearly every corner of Americans’ lives, encompassing moments like having a baby, going to school, getting a job, buying a car, building a house and placing a parent in a nursing home.” Within weeks federal, state and local legislators moved to regulate the practice and when an unchastened Supreme Court majority ruled in favor of mandatory arbitration in December, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted their first article in her dissent.
Reporting for The New York Times, Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew, Mark Mazzetti, Matthew Rosenberg, Serge F. Kovaleski, Sean D. Naylor, and John Ismay will receive the Polk award for Military Reporting for an investigation showing that elite U.S. Navy SEAL teams took on far broader roles than ever publicly acknowledged and often operated with little accountability, even after verifiable accusations of battlefield abuses. Their first story detailed how the classified SEAL Team 6 has been transformed into a global man-hunting machine over more than a decade of shadow war. The second revealed that after four American soldiers reported that three SEAL team members joined in beating Afghan detainees so severely that one died, a SEAL captain dismissed charges against the men in a closed procedure typically reserved for minor infractions.
Jason Cherkis of the Huffington Post will be honored with the award for Medical Reporting for “Dying to Be Free,” an eight-part 21,000-word article revealing that many publicly-funded centers were forbidden from prescribing effective medication-assisted therapy for heroin addiction because of pressure from 12-step programs that consider patients who use medicine to help free them of heroin as less than truly recovered. Delving into 93 fatal overdoses in a single year in three Kentucky counties, Cherkis put names and faces to heartbreaking outcomes for addicts who could not break their habit on abstinence alone. A week after his story ran the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy announced that drug courts insisting on strict abstinence would no longer receive federal funds and within months officials in state after state followed suit.
The award for Magazine Reporting will go to reporters Noreen Malone and Jen Kirby and photographer Amanda Demme, working under Jody Quon, photography director, of New York Magazine for “Cosby: The Women, An Unwelcome Sisterhood,” a multimedia story that gathered the accounts of 35 women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. Whatever comes of those charges, the magazine cover with photos of all 35 accusers — plus an empty chair to stand for women who might not have come forward — instantly changed the Cosby narrative from gossipy he-said, she-said tales into a powerful case study examining abuse of power for sexual advantage and how survivors process such abuse. More than 12,000 individuals used the Twitter hashtag #TheEmptyChair to tell their own stories within a week of publication and eight more women later accused Cosby of drugging and assaulting them.
Andrew Quilty of Foreign Policy Magazine will receive the award for Photography for “The Man on the Operating Table,” the third and final part of a series documenting the devastating effect of an errant U.S. airstrike that destroyed the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October, killing 42 people. The first journalist to reach the scene, Quilty found bodies still in the rubble, as it had been too dangerous to remove them. He discovered one man laying on an operating table, who would later be identified as Baynazar Mohammad Nazar, a 42-year-old Afghan civilian who had been undergoing surgery when the airstrike hit the hospital. The magazine held off publishing Quilty’s arresting image to give him time to make the dangerous trip back to Kunduz to meet this man’s family. When asked if they thought the photograph of his corpse should be published, Baynazar’s wife and eldest son said yes—the world needed to see it.
The award for Radio Reporting will go to Nikole Hannah-Jones for “The Problem We All Live With” broadcast on This American Life. Hannah-Jones, who is now on the staff of The New York Times, had just spent 18 months studying the re-segregation of American education for ProPublica. Struck that the first reaction ofMichael Brown’s mother on learning of his death in Ferguson was how hard it been to get him to graduate from high school, Hannah-Jones decided to investigate Brown’s school district. She came away with a fascinating and ultimately appalling narrative that reinforces the importance of school integration for the success of minority students and demonstrates how resistance to it in largely white communities drives officials to ensure that schools remain divided along racial lines.
Correspondent Jim Axelrod and producer Emily Rand of CBS News will be presented with the award forTelevision Reporting for “Compounding Pharmacy Fraud,” a series of reports that exposed a pattern of compounding pharmacies exploiting a largely unregulated sector of the American healthcare system. The investigation uncovered pharmacies peddling unproven pain creams and supplements, which they billed to Medicare, Tricare and private insurance for thousands of dollars. In one case, a pharmacy billed insurance$44,000 for a prescription vitamin supplement available over-the-counter for less than $200. Emanating from an initial check on the status of compounding pharmacies in the aftermath of a 2013 scandal that led to the deaths of 64 people from tainted steroid injections, their stories sparked a Congressional investigation and federal and state criminal and civil investigations.
Cartel Land is being presented with the award for Documentary Film. The Oscar-nominated documentary, directed and filmed by Matthew Heineman and produced by Heineman and Tom Yellin, sheds light on the Mexican drug war, specifically two vigilante groups, one on either side of the border, that take on the Mexican drug cartels. The film focuses on Tim “Nailer” Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, which claims to patrol the border to capture cartel “spotters,” and Dr. Jose Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who leads the Autodefensas. “Cartel Land seeks to give voice to the people of Mexico who suffer grievous harm from cartel violence and government corruption,” Heineman stated. “This tremendous honor is for them, as well as over 90 journalists who have been killed since 2000 covering this conflict.” A special screening of the film will take place on Wednesday, April 6, at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
Simeon Booker, who reported on the U. S. Civil Rights movement for more than half a century for Jet Magazine, will be the 34th recipient of the George Polk Career Award. Often masking his identity as a journalist in the segregated South, he covered the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi and the subsequent trial clearing young Till’s presumed killers, as well as the 1961 Freedom Rides to Birmingham and Selma and the 1963 March on Washington. Booker received permission from Till’s mother to have his colleague David Jackson photograph the boy in his coffin, resulting in photos published in Jet and the Chicago Defender that became iconic images of the fight for civil rights.
Booker, the George Polk Career Award winner, became The Washington Post’s first black reporter in 1952 but soon left to work for Jet as well as Ebony magazine, then the most widely read publications in the African-American community. Known with respect and affection as “the Man from Jet” for a half-century inWashington, at 97 he is the first nonagenarian to receive a Polk award. The media critic George Seldes was 89 when he was honored in 1980. Booker’s memoir, Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement, written with his wife, Carol McCabe Booker, was published in 2013.
LIU is one of the nation’s largest private universities. Since its founding in 1926, LIU has provided high quality academic programs taught by world-class faculty. LIU offers 500 accredited programs to more than 20,000 students and has a network of over 200,000 living alumni, including leaders in industries across the globe. Now in its 67th year, LIU established the Polk Awards in 1949 to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war. LIU is recognized for its commitment to engaged education, service learning, and entrepreneurial thinking and empowers students with the skills they need to excel in the classroom and in their careers. Visit liu.edu for more information.