The world’s most vulnerable children became the unexpected theme of 2012 Heywood Broun Awards, with the top honor going to Rod Nordland of the New York Times for his series,“Kabul’s Killing Freezes.”
The award, which comes with a $5,000 check, is given annually by The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America. Named for the crusading New York City columnist who helped found the Guild and served as its first president, the award honors excellence in journalism in the tradition of Broun – fighting injustice and righting wrongs.
The career journalists comprising the judging panel were Lawrence Margasak, a recently retired Associated Press reporter, Christopher Assaf, a former photojournalist who is now video editor at The Baltimore Sun, and Reuters reporter Pedro da Costa. Chairing the panel was Deborah Zabarenko, also of Reuters.
“The quality of the journalism in the 59 entries reviewed by the committee was nothing short of superlative,” the Broun judges said in a statement. “That the field was so rich at a time of such tight newsroom budgets is a testament to reporters’ passion to tell a story well.”
Two entries, also focusing on vulnerable children, tied for in the print category for the 2012 “Award of Distinction.” The winners are “The Shame of the Boy Scouts” by Jason Felch and Kim Christensen of The Los Angeles Times and “Empty Desk Epidemic” by David Jackson and Gary Marx of the Chicago Tribune. Each team of reporters will receive a $750 check. No award was given in the broadcast category this year.
The judges said that given the “near-impossible task of choosing a winner,” they kept coming back to Nordland’s New York Times series about the deaths of the youngest refugees living in camps in Afghanistan. Sent to the camps because their home areas were so hazardous, some children survived only a matter of days without a warming fire, a blanket or a jacket.
Nordland acknowledged being moved to tears by what he saw, and his visceral response came through in the telling. “The writing was just so exquisite, seemingly effortless with a great human touch,” the judges said. From the opening line, “The following children froze to death in Afghanistan in the past three weeks,” Nordland offered example after example of preventable human tragedy.
The judges said the story unfolded in real time against a backdrop of Afghan government denial and inattention on the part of the U.S. military and media outlets. His series led to an almost immediate delivery of aid after many readers asked how they could help, and forced the government to acknowledge the problem and join the relief effort.
In “The Shame of the Boy Scouts,” Felch and Christensen of the Los Angeles Times exposed a secret blacklist of suspected sexual predators among scout leaders. Long rumored but never before confirmed, the so-called “perversion files” were a confidential internal list dating back to 1919 of men suspected of molesting boys in their care.
“Felch and Christensen got copies of thousands of the secret files and created a searchable database linking each case to the appropriate town or city in the United States, posting the database and map on the newspaper’s website,” the judges said. “They also discovered that the blacklist was utterly ineffective, allowing many leaders who had supposedly been exiled from scouting to return. The eagerness of Scouts officials to look the other way, and to protect their own instead of the boys entrusted to them, was a key part of the account. This went beyond data-diving, putting a human face on every statistic.”
In “Empty-Desk Epidemic,” Jackson and Marx used bare numbers behind pervasive absenteeism in Chicago schools to tell the stories of students who missed more than a month of school or simply vanished from school rolls.
“Starting with a mountain of unruly city statistics, Jackson and Marx conducted their own analysis of truant and absent pupils from kindergarten to eighth grade,” the judges said. “They didn’t stop there: they went into neighborhoods to interview parents and children. They found that thousands of the youngest students were unaccounted for by the school district. These stories compelled the school administrator in Chicago to concede that these children fell through the cracks in a flawed system.”
The judges felt a fourth entry was deserving of special recognition. A special Honorable Mention and $500 award goes to Karen de Sá of The San Jose Mercury News for her series, “Loss of Trust.”
“In probing the darker corners of probate court in Silicon Valley, de Sá found court-appointed conservators charged exorbitant fees to the mentally disabled and elderly they were meant to serve. Within weeks of her initial stories, the court started working on new guidelines to curb the abuse,” the judges said, praising the enormous effort she put in to the series.
The awards will be presented at a Newspaper Guild luncheon Oct. 31 at the union’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C.