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Barlett and Steele winners show important shift in investigative work

Posted By eselgroth

By SPRING ESELGROTH
Special to SABEW

PHOENIX – A willingness to investigate stories not only illegal but those technically legal but ethically dubious represents an important news reporting shift, according to the namesake of one of business journalism’s most prestigious awards.

Jim Steele, who with partner Don Barlett represents the inspiration of an award bearing their names, told an audience that the shift is one of the most important in investigative journalism in 60 years.

Speaking at the Cronkite School to fellows at Reynolds Journalism Week, Steele said this shift was evident in the 2012-13 Barlett and Steele prizes, awarded Jan. 3.

“The interest in investigating topics that are legal is one of the greatest transformations in journalism,” said Steele, who has produced decades of award-winning work with Barlett, principally at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and later at other institutions.

David Barstow, reporter at The New York Times took the gold prize for Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart after Top- Level Struggle, a piece that exposed Wal-Mart executives in Mexico who used bribes, totaling more than $24 million, to obtain construction and zoning rights.  Barstow’s work shows the massive influence of international corporations such as Wal-Mart.

“Wherever we see power concentrated is where there’s a need for scrutiny from investigative journalists,” Barstow warned.

The silver award went to USA Today’s Alison Young and Peter Eisler for their report Ghost Factories.  The story revealed more than 230 out-of-use smelters in the United States and the harmful lead contamination left behind from their use.

In order to conduct the extensive investigation, specific geological training was required. Young and Eisler had to learn the proper usage of an X-Ray fluorescence analyzer and proper ground sampling protocol. In addition, they hired top scientists to validate their findings. 

“We were very concerned with making sure that our work was bulletproof,” said Young.

The bronze was awarded to Ames Alexander and Karen Garloch of The Charlotte Observer, and Joseph Neff and David Raynor of The (Raleigh) News & Observer. The journalists joined forces to shed light on the overpricing of medications and procedures by non-profit hospitals in North Carolina. Prognosis: Profit also reveals the extreme litigation of these hospitals against poor and uninsured patients. The story represents a story that reveals legal, and yet unethical practices.

According to Steele, their story might not have been okayed by editors because it did not represent actions technically illegal.

“To make people look at these things, to make them aware,” said Steele. “That’s the importance of investigative journalism.”
Sixth annual awards

This was the sixth annual competition, which celebrates the best in investigative business journalism.

“Cutting-edge, in-depth reporting on global ethics, environmental concerns and health-care finances led the way in this year’s competition,” said Andrew Leckey, president of the Reynolds Center. “The wide range of news organizations and the diverse issues they probed underscored the fact that investigative business journalism is operating at a high level.”

The judges were Amanda Bennett, executive editor/projects and investigations at Bloomberg News; Steve Koepp, editorial director of Time Home Entertainment Inc.; and Paul Steiger, ProPublica’s founding editor-in-chief, president and CEO.

The Center is funded by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a national philanthropic organization founded in 1954 by the late media entrepreneur for whom it is named. Headquartered in Las Vegas, it has given over $115 million nationwide through its journalism initiatives.

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