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ICIJ Team, CPI and the Los Angeles Times, and MLK50-ProPublica Win 2020 Barlett & Steele Awards

October 29, 2020

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An investigative team of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), FRONTLINE, Expresso, the New York Times and 33 other media partners won the top prize in the 14th annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Journalism for uncovering a massive corrupt global empire operating in dozens of countries.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the Los Angeles Times won the silver award and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, won the bronze award in the annual Reynolds Center competition, which celebrates the best in investigative journalism.

The awards are named for the renowned investigative team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, whose honors include two Pulitzer prizes and scores of national journalism awards. The contest is sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Gold:

In the “Luanda Leaks” series, ICIJ and investigative teams from around the world exposed a global business empire fueled by millions of dollars in public funds. Drawing on leaked records, the investigation centered on Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s wealthiest woman, who built a reputation on the false claim that she made her fortune through business acumen, grit and entrepreneurial spirit.

The investigation was sparked by a leak of more than 715,000 documents and involved hundreds of interviews with sources in Angola. The journalists uncovered numerous examples of public money paid to offshore firms controlled by, or connected to, dos Santos. The investigation identified more than 400 companies and subsidiaries in 41 countries linked to dos Santos or her husband, including 94 in secrecy jurisdictions such as Malta and Mauritius.

“Pulling from thousands of pages of leaked documents, public records and in-depth interviews, the ICIJ and its partners wove a powerful narrative about international corruption on a massive scale,” said the judges. “The reporters built tools to mine data in innovative ways and released their searchable database to make their work even more transparent.”

Silver:

The Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles Times earned the silver award for revealing how California risks shouldering a multi-billion-dollar bill because of deserted oil wells and how the public is paying a price for lax past practices. The series “When the Wells Run Dry” revealed that companies are idling wells instead of paying for cleanup. The investigation identified 35,000 wells sitting idle, half for more than a decade.

Well operators are required to post bonds to cover cleanup costs in case they aren’t around when the time comes. The analysis, however, used state data to show that these bonds are a tiny fraction of the actual expense — only $100 million of the roughly $6 billion the state would need to clean up all the unplugged wells in California. The idle wells, which emit nauseating levels of gas at times, exist not only in California but in other states throughout the nation.

“The investigation combined brilliant conceptual reporting to explain where these hideous health and eyesore problems are coming from, with gasp-provoking photography showing just how horrible some of the places with wells are to drive by,” said the judges.

Bronze:

The “Profiting from the Poor” series by Wendi C. Thomas of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, working with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, began with a question that has long haunted the city of Memphis: What keeps poor people poor?

Memphis, the second poorest large city in the nation, is a place where one in four people live below the poverty line and more than 40 percent of workers earn less than $15 an hour.

Thomas examined two institutions that profited from the poor — Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and Southeastern Emergency Physicians. Thousands of poor residents have been sued for unpaid hospital bills and the investigation revealed the defendants’ misfortune. The series prompted changes within both institutions that would better support people struggling to pay medical bills, including the erasure of more than $11 million in unpaid bills for more than 5,300 defendants.

“It is a chilling portrait of how precarious debt makes the life of the poor,” said the judges.

The judges for this year’s awards were Cesca Antonelli, editor in chief of Bloomberg BNA; Paul Steiger, executive chairman of ProPublica, and Dan Hertzberg, longtime financial journalist with The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. Judges recused themselves from deliberations involving their current news organizations.

The Cronkite School will spotlight the recipients of the top prize in a Must See Monday event on Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. Information about the event can be found here.