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Arizona State University students took first place in the Society of American Business Editors and Writers Best in Business contest for an investigation into tax liens that have cost hundreds of Arizona residents their homes.
The project was reported by students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who were part of a course in investigative reporting taught by Walter V. Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor who led The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation into the Roman Catholic Church.
The project, “Arizona Owners Can Lose Homes Over as Little as $50 in Back Taxes,” which was published in The Arizona Republic, took the top honor in the category of Student Journalism – Projects and Collaborations. Students reviewed six years of data on tax-lien foreclosures across Arizona, finding thousands of people were at risk in recent years after they fell behind on their property taxes, sometimes by only a few dollars, when Arizona counties sold the liens to private investors who then had the right to seize and sell the properties. In Maricopa County alone, 642 homeowners have lost their homes and all of their equity since 2010.
“This story packs a powerful punch, showing the devastating impact of tax liens on some Arizona homeowners, particularly minorities and the poor,” the judges said. “It recounts the experience of one family and then uses data analysis to illustrate the magnitude of the problem … This is an example of strong community reporting that can lead to change.”
The investigation was conducted in spring 2017 by Emily L. Mahoney and Charles T. Clark, with contributions from Ryan Santistevan, Lily Altavena, Nicole Tyau, Kelsey Hess, Joshua Bowling, Sarah Jarvis and Ben Moffat.
Robinson’s class combines classroom lectures and discussions on investigative reporting with in-the-field assignments during which students learn how to scour public records and conduct interviews.
“The one constant about Cronkite journalism students is they all know how to go and find a story,” Robinson said. “This was not by any means an easy story. You couldn’t get more complex.”
Mahoney, who now works as a Florida government reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, said she was proud to work with fellow students on the four-month project. She said Robinson’s class taught her investigative journalism skills that she now applies as a professional.
“Working with a journalist as legendary as Robby was an incredible experience,” Mahoney said. “I still think about the lessons that he taught me all the time in my new job, especially how to get to the bottom of things even when you’re on deadline.”
Mahoney also took an honorable mention in SABEW’s Best in Business contest with fellow student Agnel Philip for the “Profits of Policing,” an investigation into Arizona civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow police to seize cash and property with little oversight on how the proceeds are spent. The report was published by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan said the Best in Business awards underscore the school’s commitment to producing quality journalism. “Robby demonstrates the extraordinary work that student journalists can produce working with a master journalist and teacher,” he said.
Robinson joined the Cronkite School as the Donald W. Reynolds Visiting Professor in 2016. Since then, he has taught an investigative business journalism class as well as given several presentations and lectures on investigative reporting.
During his more than three decades at the Globe, Robinson was editor of the newspaper’s Spotlight Team, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its comprehensive investigation into sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The investigation, which exposed a decades-long cover-up that shielded the crimes of nearly 250 priests, was made into the film “Spotlight,” which won 2015 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
Clark, who now works as a reporter for The Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut, said Robinson taught him how to report and translate complex issues for readers.
“I had a lot of really great experiences at Cronkite, and a lot of people have helped me along the way,” Clark said. “And I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today without Robby and his class.”