Nieman News

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., has won the 2011 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers for “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Fire,” a three-part series reported by J. Andrew Curliss about prosecutorial misconduct by Durham’s district attorney Tracey Cline.

Two finalists have also been selected for the Taylor Award: The Boston Globe for “Fishy Business,” a two-part series that documented the widespread mislabeling of fish sold and served in Massachusetts and the Asbury Park Press for “Deadly Decisions: Struggling to Understand,” a report on a cluster of suicides by teens and young adults in the Manasquan, N.J., area.

“Twisted Truth” disclosed inappropriate behavior — including actions and misstatements that have lead to dismissals and appeals in court — by Durham’s district attorney Tracey Cline. Upset with the reports, Cline demanded that The News & Observer publish all of its email exchanges with her and post the audio of two lengthy interviews with her, which the paper promptly agreed to do. Cline also hosted a bogus town hall meeting to discuss the series, but it was held after hours in a locked courthouse. She additionally issued subpoenas to two of the paper’s editors and Curliss for hearings on her attempts to have a judge removed from criminal cases in Durham, forcing the newspaper to become a part of the story it was covering.

Her actions ultimately backfired: On March 2, 2012, after having first been suspended, Cline was permanently removed from her office as the elected district attorney in Durham. Judge Robert H. Hobgood found that Cline’s conduct in court filings and hearings during the past three months was “prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

The series was produced by investigative reporter J. Andrew Curliss with senior editor for investigations Steve Riley, staff photographer Travis Long and online producer Paige Maxwell. Curliss was a finalist for the Taylor Award in 2010 for his N&O “Executive Privilege” series, an investigation of the legal and ethical problems surrounding former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley and his associates at N.C. State University.

Speaking about “Twisted Truth,” Taylor Award judge Marjie Lundstrom said: “The reporter took extraordinary measures to be fair to District Attorney Cline while remembering his responsibility to readers… This is a woman with enormous power over people’s lives who stepped into her role at a delicate time in her community. Her reactions to the N&O’s scrutiny helped tell the story, and the paper wisely placed it all in front of readers to let them decide.” Lundstrom also noted that although the series and Cline’s reactions to it presented a high level of difficulty for the paper, “it navigated the landmines — and isn’t that what fairness is all about?”

Another judge, Tyler Bridges commented: “This was a good investigative article that raised serious questions about a vital public concern — the judgment and actions of Durham’s district attorney, Tracey Cline. But what especially stood out for me was how the newspaper handled Cline’s attempts to discredit its work and that of its reporter, J. Andrew Curliss. The paper’s editors demonstrated considerable fairness when Cline cast the paper in the difficult role of having to report on her attacks against it.”

The Taylor Award judges also recognized two finalists:

Asbury Park Press for “Deadly Decisions: Struggling to Understand”

“Deadly Decisions” is an in-depth look at a teen/young adult suicide cluster in and around Manasquan, N.J., that included nine suicides over the course of three years. The report included tip boxes about the warning signs of suicide, hotline numbers and other resources. Additionally, in an effort to understand why the suicides had happened, the newspaper hosted a moderated community forum to start a dialogue about the issue that attracted more than 5,000 people. The paper also posted extensive coverage of the subject online.

The team that produced the series included staff writer Shannon Mullen; Paul D’Ambrosio, regional editor for investigations and interactive data; Thomas P. Costello, chief photographer/video; Jeff Colson, graphic artist; Suzanne Palma, design specialist; Sanne Young, copy editor; Peter Ackerman and Ian C. Bates, photos; and Dan Sinni, Web design.

Taylor Award judge Marjie Lundstrom said: “I dreaded reading this story, given the subject matter. Once I started, I simply couldn’t put it down. This is one of the finest examples of reporting on teen suicide that I have ever read, giving this grief-stricken community an even-handed, appropriately toned story that did not veer into the sensational. The writer layers in essential ‘expert’ information without losing the narrative thread. I can only imagine the difficulty in approaching grieving families, while also weighing the effect the story’s publication might have on them — and on other vulnerable teens. Could it trigger more suicides? Is it exploitative? What are the other possible consequences of delving so deeply into an ongoing tragedy? The result was a very sensitively handled package that also proved quite enlightening about so-called suicide clusters. This was, indeed, a public service for this shattered community.”

The Boston Globe for “Fishy Business”

During a five-month investigation, The Boston Globe found that restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets in Massachusetts routinely mislabel fish, often substituting cheaper, inferior fish for what is officially offered on the label or menu. The Globe’s two-part series “Fishy Business” showed that 48 percent of the samples taken from 134 locations in the region were not what they claimed to be. The findings were made using sophisticated DNA analysis. Reporters Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley contacted every store and restaurant that had mislabeled the fish and invited them to explain what had happened. The paper also created a searchable interactive database for readers to see the results of the DNA testing and the merchants’ comments.

Taylor judge Tiffany Harness said: “This series on the mislabeling of fish at markets and restaurants was a great service to consumers who are buying inferior or even harmful products. What I liked about this entry is that it hit on something as possibly mundane as fish fraud and proved to me why that matters, and why good, deep reporting really matters. Not only are people being ripped off, but they might also be eating harmful fish. Fraud exists at many stages of the long fish supply chain — no simple point is completely to blame — and the writers seemed to take care in reporting that. While the desire to save money was a clear theme in the reporting, so too was ignorance. Clearly, most consumers can’t tell the difference between white tuna and escolar, but that is exactly the point: The public continues to count on journalists to investigate wrongdoing. The DNA graphic made something as mind-boggling as fish DNA totally clear.”

In making their selections, the Taylor Award judges identified stories that they believe met the highest standards of fairness in all aspects of the journalistic process: reporting, writing, editing, headlines, photographs, illustrations and presentation.

The judges for the Taylor Award were Tyler Bridges, a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a freelance author/journalist who was most recently based in Lima, Peru; Tiffany Harness, Europe, Latin America and Africa editor for The Washington Post, who edited the Post’s series “Paths to Jihad,” which was selected as a finalist for the 2010 Taylor Award; and Marjie Lundstrom, senior writer for projects and investigations at The Sacramento Bee, whose series “Who Killed Amariana?” was also a finalist for the 2010 Taylor Award.

The Taylor Award ceremony will be held on March 22, 2012 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass. The Taylor honor includes a $10,000 prize for the winner and $1,000 each for the two finalists. The award program was established through gifts for an endowment by members of the Taylor family, who published The Boston Globe from 1872 to 1999. The purpose of the award is to encourage fairness in news coverage by America’s daily newspapers.

William O. Taylor, chairman emeritus of the Globe, embraced the idea of an award for fairness in newspapers as a way to give something back to the craft to which five generations of his family devoted their working lives. For more than a century, the Taylor family’s stewardship of the Globe was characterized by an enduring commitment to fairness. At his invitation, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard agreed to administer the prize starting in 2002.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard administers the oldest fellowship program for journalists in the world. Grants are awarded to accomplished professionals who come to Harvard for a year of study. More than 1,300 journalists from 91 countries have received Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, an influential quarterly magazine/website that explores contemporary challenges and opportunities in journalism; the Nieman Journalism Lab, a website that reports on the future of news and identifies emerging business models, innovation and best practices in journalism in the digital media age; Nieman Watchdog, a website that poses questions the press should ask and teaches journalists how to monitor and hold accountable all those who exert power in public life; Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism in every medium and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling; and journalism conferences that explore specific journalistic beats and issues and examine how working journalists can adapt to changes in their profession.

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