Every year, the Society of Professional Journalists recognizes people and organizations that have made notable contributions to open government with a Sunshine Award. This year, three organizations were chosen, and will be honored at the SPJ President’s Installation Banquet at Excellence in Journalism 2012 on Sept. 22.
In 2008, Bloomberg News reporter Mark Pittman filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Reserve as a means to acquire information on the banks receiving money from the Fed as the financial crisis gained momentum. Though initially denied, Pittman’s request was fulfilled by a 2011 Supreme Court ruling in favor of the news organization. Bloomberg took the 29,000 pages of information it received and conveyed it to the public through more than 20 stories, graphics and databases on the government’s response to the financial crisis.
“The new openness was evident in the Fed’s unprecedented response to Bloomberg’s revelations,” Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler wrote to the selection committee. “Without citing any particular story — or mentioning Bloomberg by name — the central bank’s staff leveled numerous public complaints about the disclosures, and about the way other media outlets mischaracterized them. Bloomberg responded point by point to the Fed, successfully defending each one.”
Pittman died in 2009, “before he could pore over the fruits of his cop reporter instincts and his unyielding inquisitiveness,” Winkler wrote.
Medill Innocence Project
Six students entered Alec Klein’s classroom in March 2011 to start one of Northwestern University’s most famous journalism classes: the Medill Innocence Project. The students began an investigation into the first-degree-murder conviction of Donald Watkins. They ventured into the community where the murder occurred, persuaded a reluctant witness to open her door and came across a journal of Watkins’ that revealed a medical condition that may not have allowed him to commit the crime of which he was convicted.
They filed FOIA requests with the Chicago Police, the results of which verified that Watkins was once robbed and shot, leaving his left hand partially paralyzed. The injury never came up during his trial. Months of continued research resulted in the 12-year-old program’s first story recounting the students’ in-depth investigation, which attracted national attention.
“The students have taken a complex case, investigated it and distilled it in their findings for a general audience with lucidity,” Klein wrote in a nomination letter. “The criminal justice issues they uncovered in their work are of tremendous local concern.”
Watkins appealed his case in February 2010, and the appeal was denied. Watkins then filed a petition for “post-conviction relief,” which was dismissed, and the dismissal is under appeal.
In her nomination letter, Anne Karolyi, the Litchfield County Editor for the Republican-American, outlined the publication’s dedication to freedom of information and informing its audience to the best of its ability.
Her lead example was of reporter Jim Moore, who argued that an arbitration hearing in Torrington, Conn., fell under the public’s right to know, as the outcome of contract negotiations for the district’s teachers was of taxpayer interest. Moore was turned away, but he filed an FOI complaint. In a similar situation, he filed another. The FOI Commission sided with the Republican-American, and the Superior Court decided “that the evidentiary portion of arbitration hearings involving municipal contracts should be open to the public,” Karolyi wrote.
She followed that example with several other instances when the publication engaged in freedom of information battles, crediting the paper’s executive editor Jonathan Kellogg and publisher William Pape with prioritizing such practices.
Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information on SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.