Nieman News

The Chicago Tribune has won the Nieman Foundation’s 2014 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism with “Red Light Cameras,” a comprehensive series that exposed the corruption and mismanagement of a traffic-monitoring program that has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from unsuspecting motorists in Chicago over the course of ten years.

Two other entries have been selected as finalists for the Taylor Award: “The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates” by Chicago Magazine, which revealed efforts by the Chicago Police Department to improve the city’s high crime rate statistics by deliberately underreporting or misclassifying crimes; and “The Longest Road” a three-part series by The Boston Globe’s Jenna Russell that follows the struggles of a young man with mental illness and his mother as they try to cope with the effects of his illness.

The Tribune’s “Red Light Cameras” series began in 2012. Reporters David Kidwell and Alex Richards uncovered how the City of Chicago collected money through automated red-light camera fines in a program plagued by lies, deception and schemes. Their reports revealed how tens of thousands of drivers were ticketed unfairly because of both equipment malfunctions and intentional moves, such as shortening the standard for yellow-light times in order to fine more drivers. The reporters also documented how the system ostensibly designed to make streets safer was in fact making many streets more dangerous.

As a result of the reporting, federal authorities last year issued bribery indictments against the program’s City Hall overseer and others. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., and his office acknowledged that its own safety claims related to the program were flawed. Emanuel also ordered dozens of traffic-monitoring cameras taken offline and promised sweeping reforms to a program that has already collected more than $500 million.

Reporter Alex Richards now works as a member of the training team at Investigative Reporters and Editors. The Tribune’s Jim Webb was editor for the “Red Light Cameras” series.

Commenting on “Red Lights,” Taylor Award judge Ellen Gabler said: “The Chicago Tribune brought a big dose of fairness to an incredibly unfair situation: tens of thousands of motorists have received tickets they did not deserve…Tribune reporters fought City Hall for data that the reporters would later analyze to reveal the unfair practices, and also made the data searchable so motorists could see if they had been unjustly slapped with a ticket. Using extreme perseverance and data to cut through ‘he said/she said’ arguments, the Chicago Tribune told a fair story that got results.”

The Taylor Award judges also recognized two finalists:

Chicago Magazine for The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates

In two investigative reports for Chicago Magazine, David Bernstein and Noah Isackson exposed how the Chicago Police Department purposely and systematically took steps to undercount or downgrade crimes, including homicides, to improve to improve crime rate statistics and make the city appear safer. An audit by the city’s office of the inspector general showed that the police department had indeed failed to report nearly a quarter of aggravated assaults and aggravated batteries in 2012, based on the cases surveyed. The stories have started to spur reforms and the Chicago Police Department has changed the status of some of the death cases the reporters highlighted in their reporting.

A third installment of the series focusing on the Chicago Police Department’s continued underreporting of homicides resulting from the intense pressure that top police put on rank-and-file officers to produce better crime numbers is planned for the June issue of the magazine.

Taylor Award judge Kris Hundley noted: “By showing how easily Chicago officials have been able to erase homicides and reclassify aggravated assaults, this two-part series addressed a basic tenet of fairness: You can rely on numbers because numbers don’t lie. The stories showed that wasn’t the case in Chicago…As more newspapers mount ambitious investigations into everything from the environment to education, these stories are a sobering reminder that data can, in fact, lie.”

In addition to features editor David Bernstein and contributing writer Noah Isackson, the team that produced the reports included editor-in-chief Elizabeth Fenner, deputy design director Nicole Dudka and photographer Clint Bowers.

The Boston Globe and reporter Jenna Russell for The Longest Road

Boston Globe reporter Jenna Russell spent 18 months with Michael Bourne and his widowed mother to chronicle his battle with chronic mental illness and his journey through courtrooms, hospital ERs and a variety of psychiatric facilities. His illness, diagnosed variously through the years as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, has led to a disruptive cycle of recovery and relapse. Russell’s three-part series is a carefully detailed portrait of one family’s struggle to cope in a flawed health care system.

Taylor judge Kendall Taggart said: “The intimate and compelling series follows one of Michael’s downward spirals, and details how the public services for coping with mental illness fail to help Michael and his family find normalcy. Michael is both deeply ill and not ill enough in the eyes of the health system to be committed to long-term hospitalization. The series provided a tremendous public service, vividly conveying a struggle faced by one in four American families.”

Judge Ellen Gabler added: “Jenna Russell has crafted a story that is nearly impossible to put down…The writing is uncomfortably honest, yet responsible, and is a testament to Russell’s ability to get sources to trust her.”

Assisting Russell in producing the series were narrative editor Steve Wilmsen and photographers Suzanne Kreiter, on the Globe staff, and Gretchen Ertl, who shot for the Globe.

The judges for the 2014 Taylor Award were Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Ellen Gabler and Mark Johnson, winners of the 2013 Taylor Award for their series “Deadly Delays,” along with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Kris Hundley and reporter Kendall Taggart, formerly of The Center for Investigative Reporting and now with BuzzFeed News, who collaborated on the series “America’s Worst Charities,” a 2013 Taylor finalist.

The Taylor Award will be presented on May 7, 2015 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The 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.

The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard educates leaders in journalism and elevates the standards of the profession through special programs that convene scholars and experts in all fields. More than 1,400 journalists from 93 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a quarterly print and online magazine that covers thought leadership 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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