The Associated Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Palm Beach Post won gold, silver and bronze awards, respectively, in the ninth annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism, the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University announced Monday.
Named for the renowned investigative team of Don Barlett and Jim Steele, whose numerous awards include two Pulitzer Prizes, the annual Reynolds Center awards celebrate the best in investigative business journalism.
GOLD: “Fish Slavery,” by Robin McDowell, Margie Mason, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan of The Associated Press, received the top gold award of $5,000. At considerable personal risk, reporters interviewed captive Burmese slaves on a remote Indonesian island to expose labor abuses by a Thai fishing industry that ships its cargo to major U.S. supermarkets and pet food companies. By satellite they also monitored shipments to a Thai port to determine which private companies were responsible. As a direct result of their reporting, 800 slaves were freed and suppliers were fired by the biggest Thai seafood company. In addition, U.S. business groups lodged protests with the Thai and Indonesian governments and an Indonesian government investigation resulted in arrests.
“This was a gripping story with great reporting, and especially noteworthy was how careful the reporters were with its outcome by protecting the names of the slaves as they interviewed them and then notified authorities,” said the judges, who commended the bravery of the journalists. “Use of video helped to bring the story home, while the use of satellite indicates how even the most difficult stories can be covered anywhere in the world.”
SILVER: “Unchecked Care,” by Christopher Serres and Glenn Howatt of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, received the silver award of $2,000. The series explored dramatic growth in home-health agencies due to policies that encourage frail and elderly patients to receive care at home rather than at hospitals and nursing facilities. It found erratic home-care agencies leaving fragile patients without care for extended periods; nursing aides with inadequate training undertaking risky procedures; and for-profit care franchises using aggressive sales tactics. Since home-care agencies are unlicensed in Minnesota and most states, there are almost no regulatory documents or data. The stories prompted state regulators to accelerate background checks on home-care aides and intensify monitoring.
“This comprehensive series gave early exposure to a big problem that is going to get bigger as the baby boomer generation continues forward,” said the judges. “It also underscored the situation in which cash-strapped states have no money for increased regulation.”
BRONZE: “Dying for Care,” by Pat Beall of The Palm Beach Post, received the $1,000 bronze award. This six-month investigation of prison inmate medical care by for-profit companies found soaring fatalities; indifferent medical treatment; and a corrections agency and a billion-dollar corporation that hid data on death and negligent care. Beall spent months trying to obtain death data from the state, which delayed and denied access to records, then lied about their existence. Inmates feared retribution; mail between Beal and inmates often disappeared; and court monitoring reports were heavily redacted. Inmates with fatal cancers were treated with Tylenol, medicines were abruptly discontinued and surgeries were delayed. The series prompted the Florida Department of Corrections to enact fines; cancel company contracts; and post mortality data online. High-level resignations within the department and governor’s office also followed.
“A prison sentence should not be a death sentence, and people were dying while a company had been paid to care for them,” said the judges. “This powerful story that represented people who otherwise had no voice is another example of states going broke and trying to shed costs.”
While this year’s winning entries analyzed business practices, financial arrangements and documents to come up with their results, a major theme throughout all was compassion.
“Our judges said this was one of the most difficult journalism competitions they had ever judged because so many excellent investigative entries had the potential to place in the top three,” said Andrew Leckey, president of the Reynolds Center. “Our winning entries display how business journalists used dogged research and impressive journalistic skills to stand up for the enslaved, the elderly and those in prison.”
The judges for this year’s awards were Sharon Walsh, editor of PublicSource; Paul Steiger, executive chairman of ProPublica; and Rob Reuteman, professor at Colorado State University and former president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
The awards will be conferred Monday, Nov. 16, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU in Phoenix.