The Washington Post’s Terrence McCoy has been named winner of this year’s Heywood Broun Award for what the judges called an “incredible and gut-wrenching story” of how companies make millions off lead-poisoned, poor blacks. The NewsGuild’s press release is presented below and the full judges’ report is available here.
WashPost Series on Lead Poisoning and Financial Predators, Spurred by Freddie Gray Death, Wins Heywood Broun Award
AP and CNN Win Substantial Distinction Awards
Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy has been named this year’s winner of the Heywood Broun Award for his outstanding 2015 investigation into lead paint poisoning and structured settlements, a probe that began as he looked into the life of the late Freddie Gray.
The Heywood Broun award, chosen by a panel of journalists, is presented annually by The NewsGuild-CWA and includes a $5,000 prize. The award honors the best of journalism in the tradition of Broun, a crusading New York City columnist who fought for the underdog, exposed injustice and righted wrongs in the early to mid-20th century.
Freddie Gray died in Baltimore police custody in April 2015, sparking more than a week of protests. The Post’s McCoy began looking into the young man’s difficult life, leading to a series, “Freddie Gray’s Life a Study on the Effect of Lead Paint on Poor Blacks.”
McCoy learned that Gray was one of tens of thousands of Baltimore residents who had suffered lead poisoning, leading to permanent disabilities. That led McCoy to explore the “structured settlements” that many victims received.
“As he delved into the circumstances of Gray’s life, McCoy also exposed the predatory businesses that have grown up around these structured settlement programs and the lax regulatory oversight that allows them to profit off some of this nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” the panel of journalists judging the contest wrote in their report.
The judges said McCoy’s reporting was very much in the tradition of Broun, as the reporter peeled back “the layers of the institutional racism that plagued not only Freddie Gray’s short life, but of those who have grown up in Baltimore’s poor black communities.”
The judges noted that McCoy was harassed and threatened as he pursued the story, but ultimately produced a series that led to substantial reforms aimed at protecting the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
Two entries were chosen as substantial distinction winners, awards that come with a $1,000 prize. A team of four Associated Press journalists, Esther Htusan, Margie Mason, Robin McDowell and Martha Mendoza, were honored for their acclaimed investigation, “Seafood from Slaves.”
“Few journalism investigations can claim credit for freeing 2,000 human slaves, but that’s what happened when the Associated Press exposed severe labor abuses against poor men from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos who work in a multi-billion dollar fishing industry that supplies seafood to American supermarkets and restaurants,” the judges said.
The judges chose CNN for the second substantial distinction award for “The Secret World of Government Debt Collection,” praising reporters and editors for bringing “a largely unknown problem to light with their investigation of how state and local governments contract out bill and debt collection to private businesses.”
The series “is a superb piece of journalism that brought increased scrutiny to a practice that badly needs it,” the judges said.
Comprising the panel were judges Brian Bonner, Lauri Lebo and Michael Pointer, with retired New York Times reporter Lena Williams serving as chair. Bonner has been chief editor of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s English-language newspaper, since 2008 after working 30 years for American newspapers. Lebo is a journalist and author of The Devil in Dover, who now works as an advocate for public schools for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Pointer was a longtime reporter for the Indianapolis Star before joining the communications team at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) last year.
The panel reviewed more than 70 entries, work produced and published during 2015. The awards will be presented at a dinner and ceremony in October.
“The phrase that came to mind more than once was: ‘The reports of the death of journalism are greatly exaggerated,’” the judges said. “Clearly, journalism is very much alive and well and the heart of Heywood Broun beats on in the work of this year’s many talented journalists’ entries.”