2023 Barlett and Steele Awards for Best Investigative Business Journalism

Worker-focused investigations take top prizes in 17th Annual Barlett and Steele Awards

Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023


The best investigative journalism uncovers wrongdoing and holds the powerful accountable. It also gives a voice to the voiceless, while keeping the public informed about critical issues involving business and government – information vital to ensure a healthy democracy.

With business-labor relations dominating the headlines in recent months, it’s fitting that richly-reported accounts of the devastating impact to workers from business practices in two different industries took the top prizes in the 17th Annual Barlett and Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism, as announced today by the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism.

The Los Angeles Times won the top honor among global and national publications for its investigation into the legal marijuana industry, while a team of multiple-media journalists topped the regional and local category with an investigation into the health hazards in the manufacturing of kitchen countertops. This year’s award for Outstanding Young Journalist goes to Ava Kofman for her investigation into the hospice industry jointly published by ProPublica and The New Yorker.

This is the second year that the Barlett and Steele Awards have recognized publications across two distinct categories, Global/National and Regional/Local, in order to honor more of the incredible investigative work being reported in the U.S. Each category features a Gold, Silver, and Bronze award. These awards come with cash prizes of $3,000, $2,000, and $1,000 respectively. The Young Journalist Award features a cash prize of $3,000. The awards are named for the illustrious investigative business journalist team of Donald L. Barlett & James B. Steele, who have worked together for more than four decades, receiving two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Magazine awards, and a long list of other journalism awards.

“This year’s winning stories are a dramatic affirmation of why investigative reporting is crucial to democracy. Using the latest as well as time-honored tools of reporting, these journalists highlight both personal and systemic abuses in our society by powerful interests. Don and I are very proud to have our names associated with work of this quality and importance,” said James B. Steele.

The Gold Award in the Global/National category was won by the Los Angeles Times for “Legal Weed, Broken Promises,” highlighting the unintended consequences of legalizing cannabis in the state of California. This included crime, corruption, and the swallowing up of scarce natural resources for a level of cannabis production that greatly outpaced the consumption and demand for it in the state.

The Silver Award in the same category went to a team of reporters from ProPublica for their “Uncovered” series that investigates the questionable mechanisms some health insurers have used to get around paying out claims for individuals. The Bronze Award went to The Wall Street Journal for “Capital Assets,” where journalists scoured the financial disclosures of government regulatory officials to scrutinize investment choices that coincided with situations that were under the individual’s direct purview or knowledge.

The Gold Award in the Regional/Local category went to a collaborative effort by Public Health Watch, KPCC/Laist, and Univision for detailing the deadly lung disease killing workers in the Los Angeles area involved in the production of artificial stone countertops. Working without proper protective gear or sufficient ventilation, these workers inhaled dust particles that shredded their lungs. The power of this story led to steps to ban unsafe work practices in these workshops, saving numerous lives.

The Oregonian/OregonLive investigation into tax breaks and water consumption by Big Tech data centers claimed the Silver Award. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution rounded out the Regional/Local category with the Bronze Award for their investigation series “American Dream for Rent,” detailing how some of the biggest private equity firms are driving a generational housing shortage – pushing the dream of home ownership out of reach for many, while making the renting experience a nightmare.

The award for Outstanding Young Journalist was given to Ava Kofman for “The Hospice Hustle” an investigation co-published by ProPublica and The New Yorker that provoked a national conversation on the American way of death along with widespread demands for its reform.

“The record number of entries we received this year is a testament to the sheer amount of outstanding investigative business journalism being done in the U.S.,” said Dr. Jeffrey Timmermans, director of the Reynolds Center. “And the often horrific conditions revealed by this year’s winners clearly demonstrate why this form of journalism is so important today.”

The Barlett & Steele Awards are administered by the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

About the winners

Gold – Global/National Category

The Los Angeles Times’ powerful three-part series, “Legal Weed, Broken Promises,” exposed bribery and corruption in the cannabis industry in California and showed the state government’s negligence in clamping down on marijuana companies and individuals operating illegal cannabis farms. 

The report highlights how California’s Proposition 64, signed in 2016, was expected to address the illegal cannabis market and address numerous violence and environmental degradation. The investigations revealed the reverse has been the case as illegal markets surge in California.

The investigation exposed human rights abuses of cannabis workers, who were mostly immigrants, and documented over a dozen deaths of cannabis growers and workers poisoned by carbon monoxide. 

As noted by the judges, this investigation is “a richly-reported account of the devastating impact of the legalization of cannabis on the state of California. Local and state governments, which were totally unprepared, and even legal growers were overwhelmed by a surge in illegal cannabis cultivation, bribery and violence on a scale the state had never before witnessed.”

Silver – Global/National Category

ProPublica’s investigative series, “Uncovered,” – a collaboration with The Capitol Forum – presented deep dives into common, under-reported, and bad-faith practices within the health insurance industry that gravely impacted the lives of the insured. In their meticulous research, the team of reporters identified three key ways health insurance actors can put patients at massive physical and financial risk – sometimes out of reach of any existing laws.

One of the investigations followed a student with life-threatening ulcerative colitis that had not been responding to first-line treatment. When his insurer, UnitedHealth, calculated the expense of the new alternative treatment he had begun using, they refused to cover it despite the life-changing impact the treatment had on the student’s quality of life. With the help of the involved journalists, the student was able to appeal the decision and restore coverage, but the fight exposed the hidden procedures for rejecting claims.

Their investigation led the reporters to an algorithm used by medical directors at Cigna, another major health insurer, that allowed doctors to automatically reject claims without reviewing patient records, saving the company from paying claims for anyone unwilling to dispute the rejection. Over just two months in 2022, Cigna doctors denied over 300,000 payment requests this way, spending an average of 1.2 seconds on each case. As noted by the judges, the rejection of claims is “such a massive problem, and to show in detail what they do and how they turn you down with no reason is why this investigation is so important and impactful.”

In their final exploration, ProPublica explored the corruption within healthcare-sharing ministries. Their story centered around a single Ohio family that spent years creating shell companies that were marketed as being founded on Christian principles but ultimately bilked desperate patients for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Regulatory loopholes that exempt healthcare-sharing ministries as not technically ‘health insurance’ have allowed the practices within this industry to continue unchecked.

Bronze – Global/National Category

The Wall Street Journal analyzed over 31,000 financial disclosure forms for 12,000 senior career bureaucrats, political staff, and presidential employees in their thorough and comprehensive investigation, “Capital Assets.” The team of reporters probed whether government regulatory officials were investing in shares whose value might rise or fall depending on decisions made by them or their bosses. The challenge for the reporters in this case was to learn what stocks the regulators bought or sold and when. In most cases, there was no easily available record of what the investment holdings of officials in the regulatory system were at relevant times. 

To get the story, the paper’s reporters and data specialists spent 10 months scouring tens of thousands of hard-to-find disclosures and built—and then made public—a database of 315,000 trades from 50 federal agencies and analyzed patterns all across Washington. Reporters also filed over 250 public record requests to garner more information about insider trading, then used algorithms to match the nearly 1.2 million descriptions of assets and transactions against a WSJ database of publicly traded companies. 

The Journal revealed that more than 2,600 top federal officials traded stocks in companies they helped oversee, often in violation of the law. The Journal’s comprehensive reporting made this information digestible and accessible to the public which is an essential component in government transparency. Following this investigation, two U.S. senators introduced bipartisan legislation to bar members of the federal executive branch and lawmakers from owning stock in individual companies.

Gold – Regional/Local Category

Public Health Watch, KPCC/Laist and Univision began their joint investigation, “Silicosis cluster in Southern California,” following a tip about exponentially rising case numbers of silicosis in Latino workers. Silicosis is a deadly lung disease caused by inhalation of fine silica dust, but was virtually unknown for centuries – until the recent popularity of artificial stone countertops. The reporters discovered that demand for this popular new product, coupled with poor workplace protections for stone workers in the Los Angeles area, created a fatal trend. Without respiratory protection or proper information, droves of young workers were dying of a deadly disease. 

Their initial publication not only uncovered the problem, the cause, and the massive fallout, but spurred legislative action on the state and federal levels. California passed an emergency rule regulating fabrication shops using silica, and Los Angeles County began efforts to ban artificial stone products nationwide. 

“It’s stunning how little is known or understood about the impact artificial stone countertops that many of us admire in glossy magazines and TV shows and have brought into our homes have on those who cut them in shape. These stories shed light on the little-discussed human toll that a product that is so common and so popular has when the right precautions aren’t taken. It would be hard to think about this product in the same way again after reading these articles,” said the judges.

Silver – Regional/Local Category

The Oregonian/OregonLive investigative series on “Data Centers” revealed how companies like Google and Amazon received considerable tax breaks from local cities and gobbled up precious water resources. These pieces show how the initial triumph of landing a huge contract with a large company like Amazon in a rural, sparsely populated area was deflated by the sacrifice and ethical lapses that came along with it: conflicts of interests with part-time politicians, increased power demands that translate into dirtier electricity, and the secrecy behind the massive amounts of water required for cooling servers in a region grappling with an extended drought.

After reporter Mike Rogoway requested city documents to access Oregon public records on Google’s water usage, the city defended the company claiming the information was a ‘trade secret.’ After back-and-forth hearings in court, the district attorney agreed that the water use was not a trade secret and ordered the information released. Rogoway also questioned whether the benefits to the communities could have been greater by generating more tax revenue for schools, public safety, economic development, and other services. 

“The stories raise awareness about the costs that go hand-in-hand with the benefits of attracting major tech companies in communities that are desperate for jobs and growth, including the startling revelation of just how water is drained to keep running and cooling off those servers,” said the judges, “It’s a must-read for any community thinking of handing over hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to big tech companies that may not ultimately be the best neighbors.”

Bronze – Regional/Local Category

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published the series “American Dream for Rent” detailing how private equity firms are standing in the way of homeownership for Black and Brown communities in Metro Atlanta, making renting a nightmare for their tenants. These firms quickly purchase blocks of homes in neighborhoods with cash offers that push out other buyers and convert them into rentals, leaving many individuals with no other option but to rent from them. Then, as landlords, the firms make it nearly impossible for tenants to reach them for maintenance requests when their homes begin to deteriorate.

The reporters interviewed tenants who lived in egregious housing conditions, were fined heavily for mysterious reasons with no avenue for dispute resolution, and then were evicted when they couldn’t pay up. 

The investigation proved a challenge due to anonymity, as Georgia state law prohibits landlord registries, companies often hide behind LLCs, and ownership of homes can change often. To properly conduct this investigation, the reporters were mindful to standardize owner names and addresses from over a million records of single-family homes from the assessors’ office of 11 metro countries, then matching LLCs with their parent companies using common corporate addresses registered at the Georgia Secretary of State office.

As noted by the judges, the series “powerfully demonstrated how some of Wall Street’s biggest private equity firms are driving a generational housing shortage in Atlanta by gobbling up hundreds of homes and then as digital and unreachable landlords, renting them at high prices with lousy or even non-existent maintenance. It’s a call to action in a state that has been historically resistant to housing reform.”

Young Journalist Award

The Hospice Hustle,” written by Ava Kofman and co-published by ProPublica and The New Yorker examines the harrowing reality of a for-profit hospice industry that preys on vulnerable individuals in order to make money. Kofman’s reporting found that an industry that began as a visionary notion to allow terminally ill patients to die with dignity in their own homes has since turned into a for-profit hustle plagued by exploitation.

Kofman highlights a worker at one hospice whose job was to find recruits for the company regardless of their health status and explained how they were trained to find any health issue and exaggerate it to potential patients as fatal. Workers for these companies were put under intense pressure to meet their quotas and convince countless people and their families to believe they were terminally ill and needed hospice care, which often meant they gave up their right to actual medical care that could help them. Kofman’s investigation also found that in several states where regulation is lax, dozens of hospice companies were springing up, many with the very same address and no clear indication of who the owners are.

In an immediate response to the publication of this piece, in what was hailed by experts as “unusual and impressive,” leaders from the industry banded together to push for an unprecedented level of oversight, including an immediate investigation into specific hospices identified in the piece and immediate policy reforms. 

The Reynolds Center will spotlight the recipients of the top prizes at an event on Nov. 1 at 6 p.m. Arizona time in the First Amendment Forum at the Cronkite School in Downtown Phoenix. Tune in to The Reynolds Center event page for updates on the live event.