Behind the Reporting: The Goldsmith Award Finalists

Behind the Reporting: The Goldsmith Award Finalists

February 27, 2019

The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is dedicated this week to a series of interviews with the finalists for the 2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism. Shorenstein Center Special Projects Director Heidi Legg, an accomplished journalist herself, spoke with each of the reporting teams to learn how they found, investigated, and reported their stories, and about the impacts their reporting had on public policy and politics across the country. The Goldsmith Prize winner will be announced at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on March 12, 2019.

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The Wall Street Journal: “Trump’s Hush Money”

Starting in 2016, a team from the Wall Street Journal, lead by reporters Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo, uncovered evidence that Donald Trump personally orchestrated a criminal scheme to suppress damaging sexual allegations, despite denials by the president. The coverage sparked a federal criminal investigation into campaign-finance abuses that will soon land the president’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, in prison.

Heidi Legg talked to Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo about how the found the story, the lengths they went to uncover evidence, and the expected and unexpected outcomes of their ongoing reporting.


The Alabama Media Group: “Alabama’s ‘Beach House Sheriff'”

Amid threats to his family’s personal safety, reporter Connor Sheets revealed extensive wrongdoing by an Alabama sheriff, including improper use of millions of dollars’ worth of public funds and the mistreatment of inmates in the county jail he runs. Sheets uncovered a history of misconduct that resulted in the ‘Beach House Sheriff’ losing his reelection bid, the launch of investigations into his conduct at the federal, state and local level, and proposed legislation to prevent Alabama sheriffs from pocketing public funds for personal enrichment.

Heidi Legg talked to Connor Sheets about what it’s like to investigate a local elected official in a small state, how he broke the story based on a tip from a teenage lawnmower, and the changes that happened as a result of his reporting.


The Dallas Morning News: “Pain and Profit”

The Dallas Morning News found that thousands of sick and disabled Texans were being denied life-sustaining drugs and treatments by the private health insurance companies hired by the state to manage their care. While these private contractors made billions of dollars from the corporate management of taxpayer-funded Medicaid, some of the most vulnerable Texans were denied critical services, equipment and treatments, often with profoundly life-altering results. As a result of the investigation the Texas legislature pledged millions of dollars to more closely regulate the system, monitor instances of denials of care, and reform the appeals process.

Heidi Legg talked to reporters David McSwane and Andrew Chavez about tracking down the patients and families affected, how they got to the bottom of why some of the most vulnerable patients were being denied the care they needed, and what’s next with this story.


Frontline and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley: “Trafficked In America”

FRONTLINE from PBS and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism produced an investigative documentary on labor trafficking happening today on U.S. soil. Reporters told the story of unaccompanied minors from Central America who were forced to work against their will at an Ohio egg farm, the criminal network that exploited them, the companies that profited, and how U.S. government policies and practices helped to deliver some of the children directly to their traffickers. The investigation uncovered widespread criminal abuse, and will be used as a Department of Justice Anti-Human Trafficking training tool for thousands of law enforcement officials and prosecutors.

Heidi Legg talked to Daffodil Altan and Adrés Cediel about the shoeleather reporting required to find and get access to people who had been trafficked in the U.S., and the need for cultural competency and language fluency for reporting stories like these.


The Philadelphia Inquirer: Toxic City: Sick Schools

In “Toxic City: Sick Schools” The Philadelphia Inquirer revealed unsafe conditions in Philadelphia’s rundown public schools, with children forced to learn in buildings rife with mold, asbestos and flaking and peeling lead paint. By scouring maintenance logs and conducting scientific testing inside 19 elementary schools, and engaging teachers and parents in their reporting, the Inquirer built a comprehensive database of the shocking conditions putting children at risk on a daily basis.

Heidi Legg talked to reporters Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker, and Dylan Purcell, along with Investigations Editor Jim Neff, about how they found and analyzed data, tracked an expanding web of problems, and eventually uncovered the vast number of health hazards across the city’s school system.


ProPublica: Zero Tolerance

ProPublica obtained and published a secret recording from inside a border patrol detention center that captured the sounds of children, recently separated from their families at the Mexican border, sobbing and begging for their parents. The audio clip was played on the floors of Congress, sparking widespread condemnation and having an almost immediate impact, with President Trump signing an executive order to end the family separation policy within 48 hours of its publication. ProPublica reporters then dug deeper into conditions at the detention centers, detailing abuse and assaults on immigrant children, directly countering the administration’s claims that the shelters were safe havens.

Heidi Legg talked with reporters Ginger Thompson and Mike Grabell about getting and publishing the audio recording, and how their reporting unfolded and uncovered more and more layers from there.


The South Bend Tribune and ProPublica: Criminal Justice in Elkhart, Indiana

Reporting from the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica revealed deep flaws and abuses of power in the criminal justice system in Elkhart, Indiana – from new revelations in the wrongful convictions of two men, to the promotions of police supervisors with serious disciplinary records, to the mishandling of police misconduct cases. The investigation led to the resignation of the police chief, criminal charges against two officers and plans for an independent investigation of the department, demonstrating the strong, immediate impact that investigative journalism can have at the local level – and its ability to force critical changes in communities.

Heidi Legg talked to reporter Christian Sheckler from the south Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong from ProPublica, about the deep searches they did through public records to find evidence of misconduct, and the collaborative experience of reporting this story at the South Bend Tribune – a local newspaper with only 12 reporters.


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