The Oregonian/OregonLive’s “Toxic Armories” is winner of the 2016 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism. The series is the result of an extensive 18-month investigation during which reporter Rob Davis discovered that hundreds of National Guard armories across the United States have been contaminated by dangerous amounts of lead dust from indoor gun ranges.
Two other entries have been selected as finalists for the Taylor Award: “Busted,” a ProPublica series that revealed that tens of thousands of people are sent to jail each year based on the results of unreliable field drug tests; and “Every Other Breath,” a multimedia examination of the impact of climate change and the science behind global warming told by The Post and Courier’s projects reporter Tony Bartelme, a 2011 Nieman Fellow.
In reporting The Oregonian’s “Toxic Armories,” Rob Davis conducted dozens of interviews, scrutinized armories from coast to coast and filed more than 100 records requests for armory inspection reports in all 50 states. His work yielded thousands of pages of documents from 41 states that were used to build a first-of-its-kind searchable database. Newsrooms in 10 states have already used the data to create their own localized versions.
Soon after the series was published, the National Guard closed every toxic armory to community groups who use the space for public events and celebrations and promised federal money to pay for the cleanup. Davis’ reporting also led to new rounds of lead testing by the military and lawmakers called for access to inspection reports. Oregon’s governor demanded that inspection records be posted in armories and online, and the state’s entire congressional delegation called for oversight hearings in Washington.
The Oregonian/OregonLive data and video teams built on watchdog reporter Rob Davis’ work, creating graphics, videos and a searchable database of contaminated armories across the country.
Commenting on the “Toxic Armories” series, Taylor Award judge Margie Mason said: “The Oregonian’s work on toxic levels of lead found in National Guard armories is beautifully done. The direct-hit writing weaves a stunning picture of danger lurking for years in community gathering places across the country where children slept and office workers complained about unexplained sicknesses.”
Another Taylor judge, Michael Grabell, added: “The Oregonian series on National Guard armories that had been contaminated with lead demonstrated fairness by doing something that the National Guard had failed to do: informing the public that they had been exposed to dangerous levels of lead that the military had known about for years, but did little to stop.”
The Taylor Award judges also recognized two finalists:
ProPublica for “Busted”
“Busted” investigates why tens of thousands of people are sent to jail every year based on the results of unreliable $2 police drug kits. Evidence shows that these field tests regularly result in false positives yet police, prosecutors and defense lawyers fully aware of the problem have continued to use them. The reporting examined the use of the tests in different jurisdictions across the country and uncovered a large number of plea bargains made by those who eventually were proven innocent. One stunning statistic of the report:
“74 percent of the convicted didn’t possess any drugs at the time of their arrest. Most of the unjustly jailed have spent seven years or more saddled with criminal convictions that damage their reputations and constrain their lives. To this day, scores of them have yet to learn they’ve been proven innocent.”
“Busted” has resulted in a number of exonerations for wrongful convictions; led manufacturers of the drug test kits to issue warnings about their usefulness; and raised questions among lawyers and others in the legal system on the continued use of the drug tests for convictions.
Taylor judge Margie Mason commented: “‘Busted’ uses a compelling narrative to spell out a story about one innocent woman that makes you wonder just how many other wrongly accused people have gone to jail nationwide over the years for simply having a suspicious looking crumb of food in their cars during a routine traffic stop.”
“Busted” was written by ProPublica reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders. It was co-published by ProPublica and their partners at The New York Times Magazine, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Tampa Bay Times.
Taylor judge Michael Grabell, a ProPublica reporter, recused himself from judging this entry.
The Post and Courier for “Every Other Breath”
In “Every Other Breath,” reporter Tony Bartelme tells stories about the impact of global climate change, beginning with the effects on plankton, the microbes and creatures responsible for half of the oxygen we breathe. Bartelme takes his readers from the Carolinas to Bermuda and south to Florida to help them better understand the science behind environmental changes, looking at rising sea levels, coral reef destruction and the abundance of carbon dioxide in the air along the way. The series was edited by project team editor Glenn Smith.
Taylor judge Jason Grotto said: “Climate change is not only one of the most important issues facing the world today but also among the most difficult to convey. Yet every piece of this series was executed at the highest level. The characters, the science, the stakes were artistically weaved together and highlighted with wonderful videos and innovative approaches to reporting, such as the use of a special camera that captures carbon emissions. At a time when the federal government is attempting to diminish the threat of climate change, Tony Bartelme’s lucid storytelling coaxes the reader through the beauty and complexity of the natural world while injecting urgency and outrage over the imminent threats to it.”
Judge Martha Mendoza added: “This is a beautifully executed piece of journalism, with remarkably high quality storytelling in every format. What stands out in terms of fairness is the data-driven analysis that quantifies climate change in a compelling, understandable and engaging way. This wasn’t cheap, and it wasn’t simple to execute, but their presentation—from images from a special carbon dioxide viewing camera to beautifully written text—allowed the reader to draw their own indisputable conclusions about climate change on planet Earth.”
The judges for the 2016 Taylor Award were two of last year’s Taylor Award winners, Margie Mason, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, and her colleague Martha Mendoza, who both report from Asia for The Associated Press; Michael Grabell, a ProPublica reporter who covers the economy, immigration and labor and was part of a team chosen as a Taylor Award finalist last year; and Jason Grotto, a 2015 Nieman Fellow and Chicago Tribune staff writer who focuses on municipal finance.
The Taylor Award will be presented on April 26, 2017 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 94 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a website and quarterly print 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.