Cambridge, Mass. – “Targeted,” an in-depth investigation by the Tampa Bay Times into a police program that for years monitored, intimidated and harassed families in Pasco County Florida, is winner of the 2020 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism.
The reporting by Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi revealed that ten years ago, the Sheriff’s Office in Pasco County, Florida, created a secretive data-driven system ostensibly designed to proactively combat crime. The algorithm instead was used to try to predict which residents might break the law. During the last five years, the sheriff’s department used that information to target nearly 1,000 people and assigned deputies to repeatedly show up at their homes, often without probable cause, a warrant or evidence of a crime.
Judges selected two other entries as finalists for the Taylor Award:
- “Grace: A Failure in Michigan’s Juvenile Justice System,” a ProPublica series that investigated the case of a 15-year-old Black girl who was jailed for not doing her schoolwork and the deeply flawed juvenile justice system that allowed her detention.
- “Torn Apart,” a USA TODAY series that showed how the state of Florida used a child protection law to take children from families, often without sufficient cause, and put them directly in harm’s way in a poorly monitored foster care system.
Taylor Award Winner
Targeted (Tampa Bay Times)
In researching their series, Tampa Bay Times reporters McGrory and Bedi interviewed former deputies in Pasco County, Florida, and discovered that the harassment tactics they used were designed to pressure targeted residents to move out of the county or file a lawsuit. The deputies had fined one target’s mother $2,500 for simply keeping chickens in a backyard coup and fined another for overgrown grass. After they repeatedly visited one teenage boy who had a known risk for suicide, he took his own life at the age of 16.
The reporters also discovered the department had kept a secret list of schoolchildren it considered likely to “fall into a life of crime” based on grades, school attendance records and child welfare histories. The children, their parents and the superintendent of their schools were not informed about the data sharing.
McGrory and Bedi requested thousands of pages of records, including lists of targets, intelligence reports and internal manuals, along with body-camera footage. They reconstructed the Sheriff’s Office’s algorithm, creating a database that linked arrest records, calls for service, code enforcement citations and use-of-force reports. And they conducted interviews with residents throughout Pasco County about their interactions with deputies. Sheriff Chris Nocco declined their requests for interviews, but the Times published the agency’s written responses in full online.
The series highlighted issues of great concern in many other communities, demonstrating how data and analytics programs can threaten civil rights and privacy.
In addition to McGrory, the Tampa Bay Times’ deputy editor for investigations, and investigative reporter Bedi, the team members who worked on the series include staff photographer Douglas R. Clifford, video producer Jennifer Glenfeld and investigations editor Adam Playford.
As a result of the reporting, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating whether the Pasco County school district broke federal law by sharing student data with the Sheriff’s Office, and state lawmakers introduced a proposal requiring school districts to obtain written consent from parents before releasing grades to law enforcement. Four targeted people have filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated by the agency’s intelligence program, and a coalition of civil liberties groups denounced the Sheriff’s Office’s intelligence programs and promised to take action. In addition, a national philanthropic foundation cut off funding to Pasco schools due to concerns with its data-sharing practices with the Sheriff’s Office.
Taylor Award judge Justin Elliott said: “We’ve all read a lot of police misconduct stories, but I found several aspects here stunning: the scale of the harassment, the fact that it often targeted children and its longevity (nearly a decade). Reading the stories, I found myself thinking about Afghan War-style ‘night raids.’ Sure enough, the Pasco program was explicitly inspired by War on Terror tactics. The reporters managed to get not just victims, but multiple sheriff’s deputies, to speak about their experience with the program. They dislodged an impressive set of documentary and video evidence. The Fourth Amendment is perhaps the original guarantor of fairness for Americans. ‘Targeted’ exposed how it has been systematically cast aside.”
Judge Pamela Colloff added: “This series is a total home run. It takes on a subject we are only beginning to come to grips with — so called ‘predictive policing’ — and shows how easily data, in the hands of law enforcement, can be weaponized and actually harm public safety. It’s also beautifully executed. The interactive component alone made the anguish of many of the people targeted by this program palpable. This series is, at its heart, about fairness.”
Taylor Award Finalists
ProPublica’s series examines the story of “Grace” (her middle name was used to protect her identity), a 15-year-old Black student who has ADHD and was sent to a juvenile detention center for violating her probation related to an earlier offense. Her only transgression was not completing her online coursework after her school in suburban Detroit shifted to remote learning in 2020.
ProPublica reporter Jodi S. Cohen dug into the case quickly to obtain records and conduct interviews to determine what had happened. Grace herself answered questions from detention. The first story in the series attracted immediate widespread attention, prompting a global social media #FreeGrace movement, an online petition supported by more than 350,000 people and protests calling for her release. Members of Congress also asked the U.S. departments of Education and Justice to intervene. Six days after the investigation was published, the judge involved in the case denied a motion for Grace’s release, but the Michigan Court of Appeals soon overturned that decision. Less than three weeks after the initial story came out, Grace was released from detention.
Cohen also worked with reporter Duaa Eldeib to conduct a broader investigation of the state’s juvenile justice system, looking for others like Grace. They discovered that Michigan regularly locks up juveniles for minor offenses and found that children of color are disproportionately represented at nearly every point within the system.
The Michigan Supreme Court’s oversight agency launched an investigation into the court procedures in Grace’s case and proposed a rule that would ban courts from using handcuffs and shackles on juveniles. Grace’s school district issued an apology and instituted a restorative justice program. ProPublica’s reporting additionally inspired Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Presley to reintroduce a bill to address the disproportionate punishment of Black girls in schools.
The team that worked on the series includes reporters Cohen and Eldeib along with data reporter Haru Coryne and art director Lisa Larson-Walker. The stories were produced by ProPublica and republished by Bridge and the Detroit Free Press.
Taylor Award judge Marisa Kwiatkowski commented: “This series examining how one teenage girl was incarcerated during the pandemic for failing to do her schoolwork is a strong example of journalistic fairness. The series balances the narrative of Grace’s struggles with the details of failures in the system. She was incarcerated despite her school district saying no one would be penalized during the shift to remote learning, despite the governor’s order prohibiting residential placement unless there was a safety risk and despite Grace’s teacher’s statement that the teenager wasn’t out of line with other students.”
Torn Apart (USA TODAY)
USA TODAY’s “Torn Apart” series investigated how a Florida law intended to protect children has instead too often led to harm. The reporting provides a searing look at the scope of foster child abuse in the state, the policies that created it and the secrecy that has enabled it.
Reporters found that Florida officials used a law enacted to stop parents from abusing their children to take children from families at historic rates. Officials separated some children from their biological parents, including nursing babies, for months without justification. They even took children away from battered mothers and gave them to abusers.
The USA TODAY reporters fought a year-long court battle for records and reviewed thousands of files. They wrote code to analyze one million records and determined the number of children who lived with known child abusers. They also spoke with hundreds of people connected to the investigation, including 22 battered mothers who shared their secret case files when the state would not. They discovered that the state placed nearly 200 children in foster homes reported for abuse and failed to evaluate 600 children who had lived in abusive foster homes to rule out harm and ensure they received help.
Provided with the reporters’ findings prior to publication, Florida’s Department of Children and Families Secretary Chad Poppell requested $7 million to fund oversight and formed a task force to improve procedures for sex abuse investigations. Florida Sen. Lauren Book demanded that DCF bar children from placement in homes where abuse has been credibly alleged or suspected; that the agency follow up with all children who lived in an abusive foster home; that DCF prohibit adults with a history of reckless or violent behavior from becoming foster parents; and that it fire case workers who admit to lying on case files. Hearings to address these issues began in January 2021.
In March, USA TODAY published a follow-up report based on data that a government official was able to glean from the Department of Children and Families. It showed that abuse and neglect in Florida’s child welfare system was even worse than originally reported.
The team behind “Torn Apart” includes investigative reporters Pat Beall, Daphne Chen, Suzanne Hirt and Josh Salman; graphic designer Jennifer Borresen; design and development editor Mara Corbett; website developer Dak Le; project editor Michael Braga; and investigations editor Chris Davis.
Taylor Award judge Lucy Hornby said: “These articles detailed the Kafkaesque conditions that result when women who report a domestic abuser are separated from their children, and those children then disappear into an abusive state system. The result is unfair on many levels — the women are blamed for their abusers’ actions, the families are held to an impossible standard to recover their children and the children are exposed to further danger and abuse. These articles were powerfully written. The reporting was fair to the main characters, the mothers who had been denied a voice by the state, by being honest but sensitive about their complicated life circumstances. And the articles avoided the temptation to portray the social workers and state authorities as monsters, instead showing them as overworked and prey to a bureaucratic system in overdrive.”
The judges who selected this year’s Taylor Award winner and finalists are Lucy Hornby, a 2020 Nieman Fellow currently on leave from the Financial Times; Pamela Colloff, a reporter at ProPublica and staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who won the 2019 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism for “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death”; Marisa Kwiatkowski, an investigative reporter for USA TODAY who was a 2019 Taylor Award finalist for her Indianapolis Star series “Ashley’s Story”; and Justin Elliott, a ProPublica reporter who also was a 2019 Taylor Award finalist for “The TurboTax Trap.” Following Nieman’s conflict of interest guidelines, Kwiatkowski recused herself from judging USA TODAY’s “Torn Apart” series. Colloff and Elliott recused themselves from deliberating on ProPublica’s “Grace” entry.
The Taylor Award is presented by 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 1,600 journalists from 99 countries have been awarded Nieman Fellowships since 1938. The foundation’s other initiatives include Nieman Reports, a website and print magazine that covers thought leadership in journalism; Nieman 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.