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Tips from 2014 Barlett & Steele Award winners

November 19, 2014

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2014 Barlett and Steele Winners
From left, James Steele and winners Megan Twohey, Michael Grabell, Shane Shifflett and Ben Hallman

Reuters investigative reporter Megan Twohey traveled across the country and delved into some of the darkest parts of the Internet to explore a horrifying and rarely seen sector of the world. “I talked to one woman in Wisconsin who had determined that she could not care for her 10-year-old adopted son and posted an ad for him in a Yahoo! Group on a Saturday morning,” Twohey recalled. “Within three hours, she was handing him off to strangers from Illinois in a motel parking lot.”

Twohey’s exploration was just one of the stories told Monday night at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication by the 2014 winners of the Barlett & Steele Awards For Investigative Business Reporting. Twohey, the silver award winner, joined gold award winner Michael Grabell of ProPublica and bronze award winners Ben Hallman and Shane Shifflett of The Huffington Post at the event, sponsored by the Reynolds Center.

James B. Steele, an award-winning investigative journalist and award namesake alongside his co-writer Donald L. Barlett, was also on hand and spoke about the importance of investigative journalism.

“One of the things that is so evident in all of these three stories is this real concern for human beings,” said Steele. “And that is sort of the unwritten rule for all journalists. The highest thing we can do is give a voice to people that don’t have a voice, and all three of these stories do that magnificently.”

Hallman and Shifflett’s award was for a series called “Hospice Inc.” They conducted a nine-month investigation into hospice care throughout the United States, in what began as a highly personal experience for Hallman.

“A few years ago my grandmother slipped and fell in a parking lot,” he said. “She was right across the street from a hospital at the time so they were able to save her life, but she was on a quick decline and she ended up dying a week later,” he said. Although her story was not part of the investigation, Hallman and

Grabell’s series, titled “Temp Land” was an exposé on the use of temporary workers in major companies and how they are often given some of the most perilous jobs. The research had Grabell analyzing millions of workers’ compensation claims and accident reports. His reporting lead to changes in temp agency practices and policy changes nationwide.

At Monday’s event, Grabell pointed out the importance of such data analysis. He learned how to do Excel and Access because of an assignment calculating homicides. “I was doing tick marks on a piece of paper, and one of my colleagues held many trainings and I just started taking these classes,” said Grabell.

The journalists offered tips on others could conduct investigations.

  • Hallman:  Data-oriented skills can be one of the most helpful things a young journalist, or any journalist, can have.  “If you get out of school and have a basic understanding of Excel and Access and have at least some understanding of how to manipulate the data, then you are going to go into your newsroom and you are going to be way ahead of the people who are there now.  You’re going to impress your editor.  I think the reality is that, despite the data revolution, most journalists don’t have these skills and it’s such a useful and important asset.”
  • Grabell: Don’t stop even when others try to stop you. “After being thrown out (at a factory) by a body guard that looked like Jean-Claude Van Damm, I sat in my car and started looking up the address and looking through property records on my phone.  I found out it was Ty, Inc. (the maker of Beanie Babies)  and they’re relying on people that don’t even work for them.”
  •  Steele:  Numbers require context. “What’s powerful to readers isn’t that you just have a number.  But, that this is a number that was insignificant 10 years ago or didn’t exist at all 15 years ago.  Perspective to numbers is what makes them so powerful.”

The Barlett & Steele Awards are given annually for excellence in investigative Business Journalism by the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Business Journalism. The deadline for 2015 entries is Aug. 1, 2015 for work produced in the year ending June 30, 2015.

For the complete video of the Cronkite School Barlett & Steele event, follow this link.


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