Watchdog Award: Past Winners

Congratulations to the past winners of the Watchdog Award, which were selected for their excellence in public interest reporting.


“The Price Kids Pay,” by Jodi S. Cohen, ProPublica, and Jennifer Smith Richards, Chicago Tribune, an investigation that exposed the unfair practice of school officials and local police working together to punish students with costly tickets for minor misbehavior at school.

Judges said: “Combining exhaustive pavement-pounding with public records reporting and data analysis, the series is a model for accountability journalism, local or otherwise.”


“Buried Secrets” by Dan Mihalopoulos, Alex Keefe and Angela Rozas O’Toole, WBEZ. An investigation of claims of widespread sexual harassment and assault among lifeguards in Chicago Park District.

This investigation overcame court challenges and was the product of securing confidential documents to produce concrete results, including the resignations of the Chicago Park District chief executive, board president and other high-ranking officials. Judges said, “It represents the best kind of journalism that holds public leaders accountable.”


“Left in the Dark” by Samah Assad, Christopher Hacker, Dave Savini of WBBM CBS 2. An investigation off wrongful police raids by the Chicago Police Department for over a year about missing body camera video footage from many botched search warrants.

Judges said: “Exhaustive reporting and excellent multimedia presentation mark this stunning project that reveals police willfully – and with little consequence – failing to activate their required body cameras in tens of thousands of citizen encounters.”


“The Quiet Rooms” by Jennifer Smith Richards, Chicago Tribune, Jodi S. Cohen, ProPublica Illinois, and Lakeidra Chavis, ProPublica Illinois. The investigation exposed the harmful overuse and misuse of seclusion and physical restraints in public schools across Illinois.


The 2018 Watchdog Award went to the staff of the Chicago Tribune for its “Betrayed” investigative series, which found that the Chicago Public Schools had failed to protect students from sexual abuse and assault. Judges praised the “detective” work by Tribune journalists to piece together information about sexual violence against students in Chicago schools from a multitude of sources that led to reforms.


The 2017 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting went to Jason Grotto, Sandhya Kambhampati and Ray Long for “The Tax Divide,” a series launched in the Chicago Tribune and continued in partnership with ProPublica Illinois. This detailed, data-driven investigative project provided a detailed and comprehensive investigation into how the flawed property tax system in Cook County benefits the powerful and rich while taking advantage of the poor. Continued coverage and exposure eventually led to the ouster of the Cook County assessor on election primary day in March 2018.

One judge remarked: “The sophistication of the work was beyond impressive. The findings really speak to the Watchdog Award’s purpose of highlighting disparities in public services. And the project is a strong testament to the power of partnerships, from the multiple media organizations that had a hand to the work with experts who helped validate the reporting. This project is a clinic in how to tackle stories about complex systems.”


The 2016 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting went to Jamie Kalven for his story “Code of Silence,” released by The Intercept in October 2016. It is a 20,000-word, four-part investigation about two Chicago police officers who uncovered a massive criminal enterprise within the department.


The 2015 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting went to Jamie Kalven for “Sixteen Shots,” which he wrote for Slate. Kalven’s relentless work to get the autopsy report of Laquan McDonald uncovered how the black teenager was fatally shot 16 times by a white police officer, raising questions of excessive force and misconduct. Kalven kept on the story, pushing for the release of police video of the shooting, which eventually led to the firing of Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and to the officer being charged with murder. As one of the judges put it, “Jamie Kalven’s article ‘Sixteen Shots’ demonstrated investigative persistence that led to the truth in the death of Laquan McDonald.”


The 2014 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting went to Tim Novak, Chris Fusco and Carol Marin of the Chicago Sun-Times for their series, “A Little Justice for David.” David Koschman died in 2004 after a single punch by Richard “R.J.” Vanecko, the nephew of former longtime Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, during a late-night drunken encounter. The Sun-Times’ dogged pursuit of the story prompted officials to re-open the case, ultimately leading to Vanecko’s conviction nearly 10 years after Koschman’s death.


The 2013 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting went to Dan Mihalopoulos of the Chicago Sun-Times for “Clout in Session,” a series of stories on the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and its misuse of public funding. What made Mr. Mihalopoulos’ submission stand out among the 17 entries from a wide spectrum of media outlets was the relentless pressure of his coverage, according to one of the judges. Mr. Mihalopoulos didn’t quit digging when UNO made cosmetic changes and spun a show of reform.


The 2012 Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting went to Christy Gutowski and Bill Ruthhart of the Chicago Tribune for their “Children at Risk” series. Their package of stories shined a light on new, treacherous risks to one of the most vulnerable populations and led to an overhaul of the state agency charged with protecting children.


Gary Marx and David Jackson of the Chicago Tribune were honored for work on “Fugitives from Justice” a series that documented failings in the U.S. justice system that allowed fugitives to flee the country and avoid capture.


Sam Roe and Jared S. Hopkins of the Chicago Tribune were honored for work on their “Deadly Neglect” series. This Tribune investigation uncovered a pattern of harmful care at the Alden Village North, a home for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Thirteen times in the last decade, residents have died under circumstances that led to state citations for neglect or failure to investigate.


Jodi Cohen, Stacy St. Clair and Tara Malone of the Chicago Tribune were honored for their work on “Clout Goes to College.” The series of investigations uncovered how some applicants to the University of Illinois received special consideration for acceptance between 2005 and 2009, despite having sub-par qualifications.


Dan Mihalopoulos, Robert Becker, Darnell Little, Todd Lighty and Laurie Cohen of the Chicago Tribune were honored for “Neighborhoods for Sale.” The series documented the correlation between millions of dollars in political contributions from developers and zoning changes granted by Chicago aldermen.