ProPublica won the top prize in the 15th annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Journalism for uncovering massive disparities in the amount of taxes the wealthiest Americans pay each year.
The Associated Press won the silver award, and a team of reporters from The Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica won the bronze award in the annual 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.
In the “Secret IRS Files” series, ProPublica exposed how the wealthiest people in America avoided paying their fair share of taxes at a time when wealth inequality has become a national crisis. Drawing on a massive collection of IRS data, the investigation revealed the shockingly low rates paid by billionaires and the machinations used to legally tell the IRS they make modest incomes while living lavish lifestyles. By focusing on the “true tax rate” paid by the very wealthy, reflecting both their annual incomes and the much larger annual growth in the value of stock holdings and other assets, the investigation showed the impact of the tax breaks that America’s wealthiest earners enjoy.
While the primary information was leaked, ProPublica reporters and researchers spent months vetting everything from Securities and Exchange Commission filings to legal records to confirm that the data was accurate. The team also interviewed a variety of sources and experts to make sense of the millions of rows of numbers and bring meaning to their findings.
“These amazing revelations show just how – and how far – well-known members of America’s super-rich go to slash their tax bills to the very minimum, or pay no taxes at all,” said the judges. “The reporters painstakingly vetted the figures for accuracy, did more reporting and clearly explained the findings with striking individual case studies and creative graphics.”
The Associated Press earned the silver award for revealing the rampant abuse in the production of palm oil, which has quietly become one of the most widely-used commodities on the planet. The series “Fruits of Labor” brought to light the toll the industry takes on the workers behind it, many who claim they are cheated out of pay and toil under the harshest conditions.
The investigation exposed devastating abuses against millions of workers in Malaysia and Indonesia, many of them women and children, who produce 85% of the world’s supply of palm oil. This ubiquitous but largely unrecognized commodity appears in roughly half the products on Western supermarket shelves, from foodstuffs to cosmetics, including those from such global companies as Nestle, Unilever, L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, and the makers of Girl Scout cookies.
“The AP’s work, meticulously reported over the course of more than two years, produced immediate impact and told heart-breaking stories, written with the care they deserved, in a compelling narrative about global injustice,” said the judges.
“The Cutting” series by a reporting team from The Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica earned the bronze award for its investigation of industrial logging in Oregon.
After scrutinizing three decades of records and thousands of emails they obtained, the reporters laid bare in agonizing detail how lawmakers put the profits of big business first. While tax policy changed to make the rich much richer, rural Oregonians suffered the consequences.
The reporting team contacted more than 600 Oregonians through a statewide engagement campaign online, on the radio, and in community newspapers, finding deeply personal stories from Oregon’s timber country. The series showed that communities had lost $3 billion in revenue from timber tax cuts and laid bare how ownership of the state’s private forests had become concentrated in a handful of Wall Street investors and wealthy timber families.
“Everything about this work was of the highest caliber, from humanizing quotes to the stunning photographs and video to the terrific maps,” said the judges. “This was a big accomplishment for a local reporting team in today’s world.”
The judges for this year’s awards were Cesca Antonelli, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg BNA; Paul Steiger, founding editor-in-chief of ProPublica, and Dan Hertzberg, longtime financial journalist with The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News. Judges recused themselves from deliberations involving any affiliated news organizations.
The Cronkite School will spotlight the recipients of the top prize in a Must-See Monday event on Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. Arizona time in the First Amendment Forum at the Cronkite School in Phoenix. The event will be livestreamed. Information about the event can be found here.
About the Reynolds Center
Since 2003, more than 30,000 journalists have benefited from the Reynolds Center’s training. Its mission is to help journalists improve business coverage through in-person and online training and its website, BusinessJournalism.org. The center is part of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus. The center was funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a national philanthropic organization founded in 1954 by the late media entrepreneur for whom it is named. It has committed more than $150 million nationwide through its journalism program.
About the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
The Cronkite School at Arizona State University is widely recognized as one of the nation’s premier professional journalism programs. The school’s 2,500 students regularly lead the country in national journalism competitions. They are guided by faculty comprised of award-winning professional journalists and world-class media scholars. Cronkite’s 13 full-immersion professional programs give students opportunities to practice what they’ve learned in real-world settings under the guidance of professionals.