Nieman News

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The Chicago Tribune has won the Nieman Foundation’s 2012 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers for “Playing with Fire.” The six-part series revealed how the chemical and tobacco industries for years misled the public with deceptive campaigns that promoted the use of toxic flame-retardant chemicals that don’t work and pose serious health risks to consumers.

Two other entries have been selected as finalists for the Taylor Award: the Tampa Bay Times for its “Stand Your Ground,” series which, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, separated facts from misconceptions surrounding Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law; and The Boston Globe for “Justice in the Shadows,” a three-part series that took a close look at the secretive law enforcement system that oversees suspected illegal immigrants in the country.

The Chicago Tribune’s “Playing with Fire” series exposed disconcerting information about the flame retardants commonly used in furniture that were shown not only to be ineffective in slowing fires, but also are linked to cancer, impaired fertility and developmental problems. The Tribune investigation found that manufacturers of the chemicals controlled damaging facts about the safety of their products and issued statements that misled lawmakers and consumers for years. The reporters also discovered that a burn surgeon who served as a key witness for the chemical industry testified about babies who were burned, allegedly due to lack of flame retardants, yet the Tribune found that those infants never existed.

The reporting has prompted a number of actions: California is overhauling its flammability standard, a move expected to make flame retardants unnecessary in many products nationwide. The U.S. Senate held two hearings on flame retardants and a Senate committee voted to overhaul the nation’s chemical safety law; and the EPA began an investigation of the chemicals. In addition, the two largest manufacturers of a common flame retardant linked to cancer have said they will stop production of those chemicals and a national retailer will no longer sell dangerous crib mattresses.

The series was produced by investigative reporters Patricia Callahan and Sam Roe; environmental reporter Michael Hawthorne; photographer Alex Garcia; associate managing editor/investigations, George Papajohn; watchdog editor Kaarin Tisue; and designer Chuck Burke.

Commenting on “Playing with Fire,” Taylor Award judge J. Andrew Curliss said: “I see no better example of a journalistic effort, one rooted throughout in fairness, than this series of reports on toxic flame retardants. This reporting is pointed, revealing and leads the reader to a definitive and convincing conclusion on a subject about which citizens and lawmakers were at a disadvantage. This series changed that while also giving ample response and context from those targeted. Most of all, these reports serve the public, and in a tremendous way, and that is the foundation of exemplary fairness in newspaper reporting.”

Jenn Abelson, another judge commented: “The Chicago Tribune’s ‘Playing with Fire’ offers an exhaustive account of the deception surrounding the flame retardant industry and how it lured burn doctors, fire marshals, and tobacco manufacturers into promoting a toxic and ineffective ‘solution.’ The series carefully documented the widespread lies and manipulation on the part of the chemical industry and connected it to real lives and awful tragedies.”

Taylor judge Shannon Mullen added: “Had these journalists not pursued the truth so doggedly, I’m confident this brazen conspiracy would never have come to light. Their unflinching, clear and balanced work paints a disturbing picture of corporate greed run amok. I don’t think I’ll ever look at a sofa the same way again.”

The Taylor Award judges also recognized two finalists:

The Tampa Bay Times for “Stand Your Ground”

Stand Your Ground” is an in-depth look at Florida’s self-defense law that has drawn national attention and has been widely misunderstood. In its series, the Times reviewed dozens of “stand your ground” cases to demonstrate the full impact of the law. It has been used as a winning defense for drug dealers who killed their customers and gang members involved in shootouts and it has exonerated defendants who shot their victims in the back. Six reporters worked for more than three months to catalog the information and create a searchable database containing more than 225 cases that allows readers to see the true consequences of the law.

The team that produced the series included systems editor Bill Higgins; senior correspondent Susan Taylor Martin; investigative reporters Kris Hundley and Michael LaForgia; computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg; enterprise reporter Ben Montgomery; designer Darla Cameron; investigative editor Chris Davis; senior news researcher John Martin; and news researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird.

Judge Jenn Abelson said “The ‘Tampa Bay Times provides a revealing look at the origins and unexpected consequences of Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law that roiled the nation in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death. The series, based on extensive police files, court records, and dozens of interviews, unraveled half-truths, wild suppositions, and the distorted rhetoric dominating the national media.”

Judge J. Andrew Curliss added: “In the murky he said/she said aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting, the Tampa Bay Times devoted considerable resources to determining and providing for the public something that was missing in a nationwide debate on the ‘stand your ground’ law: Facts. Through ingenuity and shoe leather, the paper produced information upon which a true and fair debate could be had.”

Beth Daley, another Taylor judge said: “In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death by a watchman, the Tampa Bay Times took a long, smart and detailed look at Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ self-defense law to give a fair portrayal of how it really works. The answers were surprising – from the case that sparked the law to the fact that it is a winning legal defense for drug dealers. The series of stories and its comprehensive Web component gave the public the fairest insight into the law so they could make up their own minds about its worth.”

The Boston Globe for “Justice in the Shadows”

Justice in the Shadows” exposes the many problems associated with the federal law enforcement system that detains more than 400,000 suspected illegal immigrants in the United States each year and operates in a culture of secrecy. Some immigrants held in detention centers have no criminal record while others, including thousands of dangerous criminals, have been set free, sometimes leading to deadly results. The Globe’s year-long investigation included more than 20 Freedom of Information Act requests, most of which were at least partially or wholly denied. The paper also has filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to reveal the names of criminals who were released in the United States after they were denied re-entry to their home countries.

Reporters Maria Sacchetti and Milton J. Valencia produced the series.

Taylor Award judge Shannon Mullen said: “Maybe there is such a thing as common ground for those on opposing sides of the U.S. immigration debate, after all: a shared sense of outrage over a detention system that’s ineffective, unaccountable and fundamentally unfair. The authors give readers a rare and unsettling tour along one of the darkest corridors of our government. The shattering personal stories of those whose fate is in the hands of this American star chamber were told in a straightforward, unsentimental manner, complemented by evocative photography and graphics that were informative and easy to digest.”

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 2012 Taylor Award were J. Andrew Curliss, an investigative reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. and winner of the 2011 Taylor Award for “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Fire”; Boston Globe reporters Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley, finalists for the 2011 Taylor Award for their “Fishy Business” investigation; and Shannon Mullen, staff writer at the Asbury Park Press who was a 2011 Taylor finalist for the series “Deadly Decisions: Struggling to Understand.”

Abelson and Daley recused themselves from judging The Boston Globe’s entry this year. It was selected as a finalist by judges Curliss and Mullen.

The Taylor Award ceremony will be held on March 14, 2013 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.

For the past 75 years, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard has educated journalism’s leaders and elevated the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,300 journalists from 92 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since the foundation was established in 1938. Each year, accomplished and promising journalists come together at Harvard for a year of study, seminars, master classes and journalism conferences. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, an influential quarterly magazine and website that explores contemporary challenges and opportunities in journalism; the Nieman Journalism Lab, a website that reports on the future of news, innovation and best practices in the digital media age; and Nieman Storyboard, a website that showcases exceptional narrative journalism and explores the future of nonfiction storytelling.

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