Nieman News

A photo of the Huntsville, Arkansas, School Administration Building with a "R U Proud Now" sign in front

The Madison County Record in Huntsville, Ark., exposed attempts by the Huntsville School District to cover up allegations that basketball players sexually assaulted teammates and the school board’s attempts to conceal its decision to either reduce or throw out punishment for some students.

Cambridge, Mass. – An unflinching investigation by The Madison County Record into attempts by the Huntsville, Arkansas, school board to cover up sexual assault allegations by junior high school basketball players, is winner of the 2021 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism.

The reporting by the community weekly with a circulation of just 4,000 and only five staff members found that the local school board members sought to conceal not only the assault allegations but also their decision to reduce the recommended punishment for some students and to throw out punishment for others.

Judges selected two other entries as finalists for the Taylor Award:

  • FEMA’s disasters,” an in-depth look by Washington Post national enterprise reporter Hannah Dreier at how the Federal Emergency Management Agency is struggling to help disaster survivors in the age of climate change and inequality in America.
  • Birth & Betrayal,” a Miami Herald/ProPublica series that revealed that a Florida program created to protect OB-GYNs from large malpractice bills deprives families of their right to sue when births go wrong and repeatedly denied critical medical expenses for injured children.

Taylor Award Winner

Player-on-player sexual abuse ignored (The Madison County Record)

The Madison County Record began its investigation into a cover-up of sexual assaults by boys on the junior high basketball team in Huntsville, Arkansas, after concerned parents shared Title IX documents with the staff, fearing that the school district would not be transparent in its own review of the matter.

The series was written by Ellen Kreth, the publisher and owner of the paper and Shannon Hahn, the general manager, with assistance from summer reporter Celia Kreth.

They filed FOIA requests and used the documents to determine the timeline of events, report on the board’s actions and uncover conflicts of interest. Over time, the reporters built relationships with sources and conducted on- and off-the-record interviews with many of those involved in the story. They also reported on the district’s failure to call the Child Abuse Hotline immediately, as required by law, and its multiple open meetings violations under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. The Record also reported on the Madison County Sheriff Office’s delay in investigating the allegation and its pivot in launching an investigation after the allegations were published.

After The Record broke the initial story, other news outlets asked to partner with the paper. The staff declined because they had promised their sources anonymity and chose to protect them.

The school district fought the paper, publicly criticizing editorial decisions and the credibility of the reporting. When the school board additionally failed to provide notice to meetings a parent sued the district for open meetings violations and won. The district also filed a motion for a gag order, but The Record hired legal counsel to intervene in the case and received a favorable ruling, allowing those involved in the lawsuit to continue to speak to reporters.

The reporters persisted in their investigation despite public backlash, a loss of advertising, and letters and social media comments that questioned their integrity and attacked their decision to print the stories. Due to the attention The Record’s reporting brought to the school board, in February 2022, 19 people filed to run for seven school board seats. In comparison, no one filed during the last school board election. The Huntsville School District also admitted to several FOIA violations and a district judge ordered board members to undergo FOIA training.

Taylor Award judge Pat Beall said: “This small paper was punching far, far above its weight class, from its initial decision to publish stories critical of the community’s popular basketball team to its willingness to push back on violations of public meeting laws. This strong, impactful series cannot be read outside the context of how the fairness and accuracy of these stories, published by a family-owned, third-generation newspaper in a small community where school basketball is king, would have been challenged in ways no national or major regional news organization would have experienced. These stories allowed the voices of young victims to eloquently rebut the adults’ attempts to dismiss the abuse.”

Another Taylor Award judge Emily Corwin added: “The newspaper clearly had inadequate resources to perform such an investigation. And yet this small publication didn’t just shine light on this injustice. It did so with a remarkable commitment to fairness: presenting facts without sentimentality; protecting families’ identities; and returning to update its audiences on developments month after month.”

Taylor Award Finalists

FEMA’S disasters (The Washington Post)

A man feeds his disabled wife inside a FEMA trailer in Chico, California

Inside their trailer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency park in Chico, Calif., Mike Erickson helps his wife eat in her hospital bed. Crystal has stroke-related mobility issues.

Washington Post national enterprise reporter Hannah Dreier spent 2021 crossing the United States to research her five-part series that scrutinized the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine if the government agency was fulfilling its mission to help disaster survivors. The investigation found that aid was not always provided when needed, especially for poor families and people of color.

Her work included months of embedded reporting, 300 interviews, dozens of public-records requests, the creation of databases and an analysis of thousands of pages of FEMA case records and other documents. Investigative data reporter Andrew Ba Tran provided analysis of FEMA aid applications. FEMA declined nearly all of Dreier’s requests for information and interviews and FEMA officials issued alerts not to speak with her.

Dreier discovered that FEMA was systematically excluding Black people in the Deep South from help because of title issues dating back to Reconstruction; leaving poor families stranded in trailer parks with no plan to transition out; rejecting nearly 90 percent of applicants for aid, some of whom were living with leaking roofs and crumbling floors; and denying COVID-19 funeral assistance to those who lost loved ones during the pandemic.

Her stories have led to important reforms: FEMA ended a rule that had cut off tens of thousands of Black families from aid; rewrote the decision letters it sends to millions of survivors; and launched a partnership with HUD to give thousands of families rental subsidies and social services instead of FEMA trailers. Congressional staff, academics and members of FEMA’s own Office of Strategy and Innovation requested access to The Post’s databases to inform law and policy making. The Post released the full datasets on GitHub, along with an interactive map and customizable app.

Survivors profiled in the stories have received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from readers, and, in two cases, also received donated homes.

Taylor Award judge Kathleen McGrory said: “Wow. This series is a tour du force of journalism that blends rich, textured narratives with irrefutable, data-driven evidence of systemic inequities by one of the federal government’s most important agencies. It spurred real reform that may have helped millions of people. It exposed how help is truly out of reach for low-income families and people of color. The execution was truly impeccable.”

Taylor Award judge Jodi Cohen commented: “Each one of Hannah Dreier’s stories about FEMA’s failures is breathtaking. In getting to these findings, Hannah’s reporting also is rooted in fairness. She embedded with families to get the most complete narrative of their lives. She found a way to circumvent FEMA’s ban for anyone to talk with her by calling call center workers until she found one who would let her listen in on calls. To be fair to the survivors, she then obtained permission from them to use the material.”

And Taylor Award judge Neil Bedi added: “This was a masterclass in difficult, sensitive reporting and sharp watchdog journalism. Hannah does an incredible job capturing these families’ experiences with intimate interviews and executes the stories so well that readers must grapple with the unfairness of this system.”

Dreier recently joined The New York Times as an investigative reporter.

Birth & Betrayal (Miami Herald/ProPublica)

A mother holds a photo of her newborn baby girl who was injure during delivery

As Jamie Acebo recovered from a difficult delivery, this was the photo she was shown of her newborn daughter.

In “Birth & Betrayal,” Miami Herald reporters Carol Marbin Miller and Daniel Chang revealed many alarming problems associated with the Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Association (NICA), a program created to protect Florida doctors and hospitals from being sued by parents whose children suffered catastrophic brain injuries at birth, often the result of negligence. NICA was designed to cover the often prohibitively expensive healthcare needs of the injured children but prevented families enrolled in the program from filing suit.

The meticulous investigation found that NICA repeatedly refused requests from parents for medication, wheelchairs, specially equipped vans, feeding tubes, therapy, in-home nursing care and home modifications at the same time its assets grew to nearly $1.7 billion. NICA lawyers, financial advisors and publicists earned large fees. 

To do their reporting, Marbin Miller and Chang requested 1,238 NICA petitions filed at the state Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH), where brain injury cases are litigated. They analyzed internal case management logs, emails, financial data, board minutes, archival material, court documents and medical records. The journalists also convinced parents concerned about retaliation from NICA to talk on the record, promising to expose reprisals if that happened.

Miami Herald visual journalist Emily Michot produced video and photographs for the series and ProPublica provided financial and editing support.

The series had great impact. On the same day the first part of the series was published, Florida’s chief financial officer ordered an audit and announced that his consumer advocate had been appointed to help parents who had been harmed. Three weeks later, lawmakers unanimously passed a reform bill overhauling the program, which increased the financial benefits to NICA families. The legislation additionally put a NICA parent and a disability advocate on the governing board for the first time. The reporting also led to the development of a community of NICA parents who previously had no way to connect as NICA had refused to help them contact each other.

NICA’s director quit along with the entire board. And this year, the Florida Legislature added a $150,000 one-time benefit for NICA families whose children are no longer alive.

Taylor Award judge Pat Beall said: “The Herald’s “Birth & Betrayal” series detailed a secretive state program so profoundly imbalanced in favor of the powerful — insurance interests and government administrators — that it robbed extraordinarily vulnerable children, and their families, of any voice at all. Of all those groups and individuals who benefited from excellent reporting by the Taylor Award nominees — and there were many — none, to my eye, had less power than this small, desperate group of families, and so no group benefited more from a reporting team’s determination to inject fairness into a system balanced against them.”

The judges who selected this year’s Taylor Award winner and finalists are ProPublica reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi, who together won the 2020 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism for their Tampa Bay Times series “Targeted” and were 2018 finalists for theTampa Bay Times investigation “Heartbroken”; Jodi Cohen, a ProPublica reporter who was a 2020 Taylor Award finalist for “Grace: A Failure in Michigan’s Juvenile Justice System” and won the 2009 Taylor Award as part of the team that produced the Chicago Tribune’s “Clout Goes to College”; Pat Beall, a former investigative reporter for USA Today, who was a 2020 Taylor Award finalist for “Torn Apart”; and Emily Corwin, an investigative reporter and editor and a 2021 Abrams Nieman Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism.

Following Nieman’s conflict of interest guidelines, Neil Bedi and Jodi Cohen recused themselves from judging the Miami Herald/ProPublica “Birth & Betrayal” entry. Kathleen McGrory had not yet joined ProPublica when the series was published.

The Taylor Award is presented annually by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. 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.