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ProPublica Illinois, Chicago Tribune, Argus Leader win top prizes in 2020 Schneider Disability Reporting Competition

October 20, 2020
PRLab

Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune; and Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis of ProPublica Illinois.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has announced winners of the 2020 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability, the only journalism contest devoted exclusively to the coverage of people with disabilities and disability issues.

Journalists working in digital, print and broadcast media from around the world competed for awards and cash prizes totaling $8,000. The NCDJ received more than 100 entries.

First place in the large media market category was awarded to “The Quiet Rooms,” an in-depth investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune. The project, written by Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune and Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis of ProPublica Illinois, investigated the practice of isolating school children, many of whom have disabilities. The journalists examined records from more than 100 school districts across Illinois, concluding that while seclusion is sometimes legal, in many instances it was used outside the bounds of the law in ways that were cruel and unjustified.

“Excellent reporting reveals unconscionable horrors inflicted on children with disabilities,” said Lisa Davis, an author and faculty member in the Communication Department at Santa Clara University, who served as one of the judges.

“The story also expertly shows the ignorance and frustration of overwhelmed staff and the desperation of parents,” she said. “Taken as a whole, the situation is an epic mess with an urgent need for help. The detailed reporting, including the logs with times and children's quotes, really brings this story to life.”

Smith Richards, Cohen and Chavis will receive $2,500 and an invitation to participate in a virtual public lecture with the Cronkite School on Monday, Nov. 2, from 6 to 7 p.m.

Mike Elsen-Rooney of USA Today took second place in the large media market category for “Two Boys with the Same Disability Tried to Get Help.”

Elsen-Rooney explored what happened when the families of two boys from different backgrounds – living just 15 blocks apart in New York City – tried to get help for their children, both of whom struggled to learn to read. This story was part of a series from The Teacher Project and USA Today on private placements, and includes additional reporting from Sarah Carr, Sharon Lurye, and Ashley Okwuosa. Elsen-Rooney will receive $1,000.

Joseph Shapiro of National Public Radio won third place in the large media market category for his story “COVID-19 is a Disability Issue,” about the specific challenges faced by people with disabilities during the pandemic. Shapiro will receive $500.

Michael Schulson of Undark received honorable mention in the large media market for “The Physics, Economics, and Politics of Wheelchairs on Planes,” a look at the science behind airplanes and wheelchairs and an examination of the challenges faced by people who use wheelchairs 30 years after the passage of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.

In addition to Davis, the judges for the large media market category were Jerry Ceppos, former dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, and Jennifer LaFleur, data editor for American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.

First place in the small media market category was awarded to “Ignored: South Dakota is Failing Deaf Children,” an investigative series by Shelly Conlon of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The project explored the systematic decisions that lawmakers, educators and state officials have made at every level, leading to a dire lack of access to resources, accommodations and Deaf teachers.

"This investigation by the Argus Leader takes a comprehensive look at how Deaf and hard of hearing children and their families have fallen through the cracks of South Dakota's education system,” said judge Wendy Lu, a news editor and reporter at HuffPost who covers the intersection of disability, politics and culture. “The story reveals a pattern of negligence and a lack of responsibility from those in power, while taking great care to center the voices of the community that's being affected the most."

Conlon will receive $2,500 and is invited to participate in the virtual public lecture at the Cronkite School on Nov. 2.

Janine Zeitlin of The News-Press/Naples Daily News won second place in the small media market category for “Forsaken,” a five-part series that followed a young woman for a year, revealing the inadequacies of both Florida’s foster care and mental health systems. Zeitlin will receive $1,000.

Ed Williams of Searchlight New Mexico took third place in the small media market category for “Restraint, Seclusion, Deception,” in which Williams exposed that not only are isolation rooms and restraint techniques misused in Albuquerque, New Mexico, schools, the actions are often kept secret. Williams will receive $500.

Honorable mention in the small media market category was awarded to Naaz Modan of Education Dive for “Special Needs Students Often Pay Price in Efforts to Strengthen School Safety,” which revealed that changes in the law have meant that children with disabilities in Florida are being involuntarily committed to mental health facilities when it’s not always necessary.

In addition to Lu, the judges for the small media market awards were Patricia Callahan, senior reporter for ProPublica; Leon Dash, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois; and Sara Luterman, who covers disability policy and politics for publications that include The Nation, Vox and The Washington Post.

The Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability was established in 2013 with the support of Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who has been blind since birth and who also supports the national Schneider Family Book Awards. The reporting contest is administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at the Cronkite School.