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Lauren Gilger, a 2011 graduate of Arizona State University, won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for an ABC15 investigative series exposing a deadly acceleration defect in Ford Escapes that led to a massive recall of the SUVs.
Gilger, 26, of Phoenix, joined KNXV, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix owned by the E.W. Scripps Co., as an investigative producer in 2011 after receiving her master’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Peabody was one of only four given this year to local U.S. news stations and just the third won by a Phoenix station in more than 20 years.
The award-winning team from the ABC15 Investigators unit included Gilger, investigative reporter Joe Ducey, photojournalist Gerard Watson and editor Scott Sherman. The team reported on a January 2012 fatal car crash in Payson, Ariz., that claimed the life of 17-year-old Saige Bloom. The news report led to a five-month investigation that uncovered a safety defect that caused the throttles to stick in Ford Escapes and triggered a federal probe and the corporate recalls of more than 700,000 SUVs – 2001-2004 Ford Escapes and 2001-2008 Mazda Tributes.
“We believe our reporting had a real impact nationwide and saved lives,” said Anita Helt, vice president and general manager of ABC15 and a member of the Cronkite School Endowment Board of Trustees. “Taking action to make our community safer and better is our station’s mission. This investigation is reflective of the kind of community-changing journalism we strive for every day.”
Horace Newcomb, director of the Peabody Awards, said Gilger's ABC15 investigation is "the kind of local news story sought out by the Peabody Award. It betters a community and expands to serve citizens at the national level. In doing so it stands as an example of the excellence we seek and it should be a model for journalists everywhere, in every medium."
Joe Hengemuehler, the Cronkite School’s Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Journalism Ethics who was ABC15’s news director during the reporting of the SUV story, also had high praise for Gilger’s work.
"In many instances, in-depth investigative journalism is like a marathon,” he said. “On this story in particular, Lauren had the right combination of stamina, focus and passion from start to finish. I am so proud of her and of her work on this major story."
Hengemuehler added: “Being recognized with a Peabody is one great reward. Another is that her accomplishment can most certainly inspire current Cronkite School students who are envisioning what's possible when they start their careers."
Gilger was a standout during her time at the Cronkite School. She was a lead reporter on Cronkite NewsWatch, the school’s nightly newscast that airs across the state on Arizona PBS. She was part of a reporting team that produced in-depth stories along the Dominican Republic-Haiti border, earning a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. And she was a fellow in the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, spending a summer traveling back and forth to the U.S.-Mexican border to produce stories on the plight of immigrant women caught in deportation limbo.
She was named the school’s Outstanding Graduate Student at the May 2011 graduation ceremonies.
“It is a rare honor for any journalist, let alone one at the very beginning of her career, to receive a Peabody Award, which has represented the gold standard in broadcast journalism for more than 70 years,” said Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan. “Yet news of Lauren winning the Peabody came as no surprise to her colleagues and professors here at Cronkite. She is an extraordinary talent – an intelligent, inquisitive, passionate and relentless reporter who has a true gift for telling stories. Lauren will be producing these kinds of impactful stories – shedding light on important topics and helping to improve our world – for years to come.”
Gilger said the Ford Escape report is “the kind of story you don’t come across very often in your career, and I was lucky to be a part of it. We’re honored by the award, but even more important to us is that we could tell the story of Saige Bloom and hopefully prevent other tragedies. We are extremely fortunate to have leadership at ABC15 and Scripps that supports this kind of reporting.”
The Peabody Awards, administered by the Grady College of Journalism of Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, are the oldest and among the most prestigious and selective prizes in electronic journalism. The Peabodys honor excellence in television, radio and the Web worldwide.
“Reviewing submissions for Peabody consideration is a truly exciting process,” Newcomb said. “Producers and organizations send us their best work from the previous year. It is an astonishing array of outstanding media accomplishment. From this array, we must select the ‘best of the best.’ It’s not always easy, but it always demonstrates the meaning of true excellence in electronic media.”
ABC15 won a 2007 Peabody Award for exposing security risks at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. Last year, CBS5 won a Peabody for its reporting on secretly buried drums of Agent Orange on a U.S. Army base in South Korea.
The ABC15 team and the other winners of the 72nd annual Peabody Awards will be honored at a May 20 ceremony in New York. Scott Pelley, anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” will emcee the event.