Nieman News

Former slave fisherman embraces his mother after returning to Myanmar

Former slave fisherman Myint Naing spent 22 years in captivity before returning to his home in Myanmar

The Associated Press has won the 2015 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism with its trailblazing series “Seafood From Slaves,” which exposed the abusive and inhumane practices common in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry. The reporting led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves, jail time for a dozen of the offenders, a number of significant reforms and international calls for change.

The four journalists responsible for the journalistic tour de force were AP’s Asia regional writer and 2009 Nieman Fellow Margie Mason, Myanmar correspondent Robin McDowell, national writer Martha Mendoza and Myanmar reporter Esther Htusan.

Two other entries have been selected as finalists for the Taylor Award: “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a collaboration between Marshall Project staff writer Ken Armstrong, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, and ProPublica investigative reporter T. Christian Miller; and “Insult to Injury: America’s Vanishing Worker Protections,” another collaborative series produced by reporter Michael Grabell and news applications developer Lena Groeger at ProPublica together with NPR correspondent and 1998 Nieman Fellow Howard Berkes.

The AP’s “Seafood from Slaves ” series was the result of a sweeping 18-month investigation during which reporters tracked ships, located slaves – some who were physically caged – and clandestinely followed the trail of delivery trucks to determine where slave-caught seafood was being shipped. The AP team traced fish to a number of major U.S. food retailers including Target, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Red Lobster, as well as dinner tables worldwide. The team proved the long-suspected “open secret” of slavery in the fishing industry and uncovered crimes of the $7 billion-a-year Thai seafood export business.

As a result of the reporting, enslaved workers have been set free, profitable ships have been seized and businesses shuttered. The series also led to U.S. Congressional hearings, lawsuits and proposed legislation.

Commenting on the series, Taylor Award judge Jenna Russell said: “It is hard to imagine a more fully realized attack on unfairness than a newspaper series that succeeded in freeing slaves and returning them to their families. ‘Seafood from Slavery’ demonstrates the transformative power of journalistic persistence and follow-through. These stories are meticulous and essential in their documentation of a complex global problem, but they also depict in haunting, evocative detail the human suffering behind the economic forces.”

Another Taylor judge, Noah Isackson, noted that the AP stories “gave voice to the voiceless, uncovering injustices and systemic problems that – were it not for the heroic efforts of the journalists – may have gone unnoticed for years.  This is investigative journalism at its finest.”

The Taylor Award judges also recognized two finalists:

The Marshall Project and ProPublica for An Unbelievable Story of Rape

Rather than compete to tell this gripping narrative, veteran investigative reporters Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller teamed up to find out what really happened to an 18-year-old woman who reported being raped at knifepoint in her apartment near Seattle only to recant and later say she had fabricated the story after police investigators doubted her story. Through careful digging and masterful storytelling, the reporters get to the truth behind the lie – that protagonist “Marie” had in fact been raped and photographed by a serial rapist who had moved to Colorado to prey on new victims. Their reporting tells a tale of both incompetence and great skill in two different police forces, personal humiliation and ultimately redemption for a woman facing betrayal from those who should have trusted and protected her.

Judge Jenna Russell commented: “With astonishing nuance and humanity, ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ examines one of the most essential questions of fairness in modern society: how we see, hear and judge other people based on their backgrounds and presentations and our own prejudices and preconceptions. Its striking and consistent fairness arises from the reporters’ decision to own and revel in the story’s complexity, and to strive for respect and understanding of everyone involved, including the police.”

ProPublica and NPR for Insult to Injury: America’s Vanishing Worker Protections

ProPublica and NPR’s exhaustive joint investigation into changing workers’ compensation laws found that over the past decade, states have been chipping away the system established a century ago to protect workers injured on the job. Originally designed as a system in which workers waived their right to sue employers in exchange for medical care and wages for lost work, workers’ comp today tends to favor big business and insurance companies. Among the findings: Since 2003, legislators in 33 states have passed workers’ comp laws that reduce benefits or make it more difficult for those with certain injuries and diseases to qualify for them. 
Many workers denied benefits have turned to government programs, which now pay some $30 billion annually for tax-funded medical care and lost wages. Reporters Michael Grabell and Howard Berkes interviewed more than 200 people in 16 states for their 
investigation, which they reported in a series of print stories, radio pieces and photo essays. The series has prompted calls for reforms in a number of states and from leading Democratic lawmakers.

Taylor judge David Kidwell said: “Of course, we all read stories about the assault on the American worker and the alleged ‘race to the bottom’ but never before have I seen such a comprehensive examination of the systematic – and hugely unfair – destruction of a system that was created to protect workers and their families from corporate greed.”

Judge Alex Richards added: “Companies have managed to undo a critical part of the social contract with workers, leaving them to try to eke out an existence after horrendous on-the-job accidents. The reporters did an excellent job documenting not only the deterioration of benefits in most states, but the other unfair choices businesses are allowed to make, including determining the quality of care injured workers receive.”

The judges for the 2015 Taylor Award were last year’s Taylor Award winners David Kidwell, a Chicago Tribune reporter, and his colleague Alex Richards, now training director at Investigative Reporters and Editors; Boston Globe reporter Jenna Russell; and Noah Isackson, a contributing writer at Chicago Magazine. Russell and Isackson were 2015 Taylor Award finalists.

The Taylor Award will be presented on May 4, 2016 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 journalists and news organizations.

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 1,500 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; 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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