The 2012 Heywood Broun Award winners: Michael Sallah, Carol Marbin Miller and Rob Barry for The Miami Herald's "Neglected to Death".
A Miami Herald series that exposed what contest judges called a “gut-wrenching epidemic of elder abuses and deaths” in Florida’s assisted living facilities has won the 2012 Heywood Broun Award given by NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America.
“Through the aggressive pursuit of records, shoe-leather reporting, and vivid writing, the Herald’s reporting team delivered journalism that was hard-hitting, fair, and life-altering,” the four-judge panel said in a joint statement. “With Florida the home to the nation’s largest percentage of seniors, the importance of the series cannot be overstated.”
A three-person investigative team, Michael Sallah, Carol Marbin Miller and Rob Barry, began work on the project in March 2010. The first three installments of “Neglected to Death” were published in May 2011, with a fourth piece in August 2011.
The Heywood Broun Award is named for the New York columnist who helped found The Newspaper Guild, now commonly known as NewsGuild, in 1933. As a journalist, Broun was a champion of the underdog and the award honors reporting that upholds that tradition.
The award, including a $5,000 check, will be presented at a dinner Oct. 16 at the Maritime Institute conference center near BWI. In addition, “Awards of Distinction” will be presented to The New York Times and NPR, each with a $1,000 check.
The 2012 Broun contest drew 78 entries, 62 from print and 16 broadcast. The quantity and “tremendous quality” of entries, the judges said, was uplifting in a time of grave concern about newsroom staffing cuts, ownership consolidation and other changes threatening traditional reporting and its vital role in a democracy.
“From top to bottom, the committee was impressed with the scope, originality, and quality of storytelling in these entries,” they said. “In the tradition of Broun, the majority of the stories shined a bright light on wrongs and tried to right them. They gave voice to the voiceless, and made visible the invisible.”
The Miami Herald’s winning series reveals horror stories of elder abuse that went unpunished for years until reporters obtained files from secret state archives. The first of 70 cases they reviewed told of 74-year-old Gladys Horta, whose caretakers were tired of her roaming the halls of the assisted living facility. They forced her into bed and strapped her down so tightly that the restraints ripped into her skin and killed her. Another senior died of burns after being left in a tub of scalding water. A 75-year-old Alzheimer’s patient was ripped apart by an alligator after he wandered away from his facility for the fourth time.
State regulators could have shut down the homes, imposed major fines or banned them from taking new residents, but the Herald team discovered that none of that had happened.
As the series unfolded, Gov. Rick Scott ordered a statewide crackdown, lawmakers called for a special investigation, and prosecutors launched a grand jury probe. The state shut down a dozen dangerous homes and unveiled massive reforms to create one of the toughest laws in the nation, Sallah said.
The Broun judges were further impressed by the database the paper created to detail regulatory violations and the care facilities’ histories. “It’s hard to imagine a better piece of journalism,” the judges said. “This epitomizes the role of the newspaper as watchdog to the community it serves.”
In addition to the top prize, the judges gave two Broun “Awards of Distinction.” Danny Hakim and Russell Buettner of The New York Times won for “Abused and Used,” a series the judges called “an extraordinary investigation” of more than 1,200 deaths of developmentally disabled people in New York state. The series led to an overhaul of the state system, new laws to protect the disabled and protections for whistleblowers. “The newspaper’s work will have lasting impact on some of society’s most vulnerable citizens,” the judges said.
Another “Award of Distinction” goes to National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity for their collaboration on, “Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities.” The series, which had 23 contributors, documented how 21 years after the Clean Air Act, toxic air still poisons U.S. communities. It revealed for the first time the EPA’s internal watch list of the nation’s worst air polluters, some 400 facilities nationwide. The series triggered immediate enforcement action in two states and resulted in the EPA posting monthly updates of its watch list online. “Because of this series, the secret watch list is no longer a secret,” the judges said.
The judges, all first-time Broun panelists, each spent many years as newspaper journalists. Panel Chair Scott Stephens reported for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and is now in communications for the American Federation of Teachers. Sandra Banisky, former deputy managing editor of The Baltimore Sun teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. Elmer Smith recently retired as a Philadelphia Daily News columnist and teaches journalism part-time. Robert Struckland, past reporter at The Missoulian in Montana, is an AFL-CIO speechwriter.