The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism acknowledged stellar skills by handing out the 2014 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.
A team from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose “Deadly Delays” series documented how delays in newborn screenings at hospitals across the country put babies at risk for disability and even death, accepted the award on April 11 at the USC Davidson Continuing Education Conference Center.
The $35,000 award, one of the largest in journalism, honors investigative work that informs the public about major problems or corruption in society.
I’ve never been more persistent or more organized in my life.
“Good journalism should increase civic engagement,” said USC Annenberg School of Journalism Interim Director Michael Parks. “If it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why did you do it?’ or more appropriately, ‘What else should you have done?’
“At Annenberg we advocate solutions-based journalism,” he said. “I think that’s what good journalism does and particularly what good investigative journalism should do.”
In attendance on April 11 were Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser, Managing Editor George Stanley and reporter Ellen Gabler, who Parks described as “one of the most dogged reporters I’ve ever met.”
“Basically what I did for two or three months was just negotiate with state health officials,” Gabler said. “I’ve never been more persistent or more organized in my life.”
During the course of their investigation, the team analyzed nearly 3 million newborn screening tests from across the country. Gabler requested newborn screening data from all 50 states, though she eventually received data from 31, and hospital names from 26, due in part to the fact that some states feared the backlash that could result from disclosing hospital names.
“A lot of these people just thought I was going to go away,” said Gabler of the challenges she faced while attempting to attain data from all 50 states. “But I just kind of refused to take no for an answer.”
The newspaper team created an interactive map to illustrate the data it received and to identify where there is room for improvement.
“I think the reason we got such quick results is because we held people accountable,” Gabler said.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Selden Ring Award, which was established in 1989 by business leader and philanthropist Ring, and receives continued support from the Ring Foundation. Cindy Miscikowski, CEO of The Ring Group, also spoke at the awards ceremony.
“This year’s award-winning story is really profound,” said Miscikowski of the investigative reporting, which was selected from 61 entries from across the country. “I can’t remember [reading] one that has brought me to some of the emotional levels that this story did.”
A widespread problem
The series was inspired by Journal Sentinel reporter Mark Johnson’s story about Colton Hidde, a baby whose life was endangered by a metabolic disease that could have been detected had his newborn screening not been delayed. Thankfully, Colton survived, but the team realized the problem could be more widespread than many realized.
“We’re not afraid to go big,” Gabler said. “We knew this could be more than just one story about one kid who almost died.”
For Gabler, the Selden Ring Award exemplifies the fact that there is still a place and a need for comprehensive investigative journalism.
“I love how [the award] encourages people to do this kind of work,” Gabler said. “You can absolutely do this kind of work especially if you have great bosses and work hard to do it, so I think the Selden Ring is a great award in that it encourages that.”
As a result of the investigation, Washington State recently passed a law requiring public disclosure of newborn screening data, and other states will also begin posting their data online, according to Gabler.
“We had results throughout the country right away,” she said. “In a lot of these cases, there were really simple fixes.”
Having already earned seven other major national awards for “Deadly Delays,” Kaiser referred to the Selden Ring Award as the series’ “capstone.”
The team hopes this success will draw attention to the issue of newborn screening and the importance for journalists to be able to do the kind of reporting that made the series — and its findings — possible.
“One thing I felt really lucky for about working at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is that we have great editors who aren’t afraid to elevate the story,” Gabler said. “I wish more newsrooms would do that, to realize when you have a big story, and not just say, ‘Oh, you get two weeks to do this or you get a month to do this.’ This took a long time. You really need to be patient because it really pays off in the end.”