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Imagine you’ve got a lead on a great story that will make a big difference in the world — but publishing it might cost you your job. Do you do it? What if getting all the facts would require you to risk your life? Do you go the extra mile? Now imagine that publishing that big story could put your sources’ lives in danger. Do you hold publication until you can guarantee their safety?

These are the kinds of tough questions the winners of the 16th annual Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism answered while doing journalism that made a difference. To honor their commitment to maintaining the highest ethical standards in the face of extraordinary pressures, the University of Oregon (UO) School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) will present a Payne Award and a $5,000 prize to two nominees:

  • Associated Press reporters Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza and Esther Htusan
  • The journalists of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, including James G. Wright, James DeHaven, Howard Stutz, Jennifer Robison, Eric Hartley, John L. Smith and Glenn Cook

Unique among national journalism award programs, the Payne Award recognizes ethical practice and decisions that demonstrate courage and integrity. “This year’s nominations included numerous examples of journalists and journalism organizations who made difficult, well-reasoned ethical decisions while producing outstanding journalism,” said Tim Gleason, director of the Payne Award and an SOJC professor. “What distinguishes Payne Award winners are the ethical decisions they make when faced with significant external pressure.”

To publish the Seafood from Slaves series, AP reporters Mason, McDowell, Mendoza and Htusan led a yearlong investigation into alleged human trafficking in Thailand’s $7 billion seafood industry. Their extensive efforts — from tracking ships and staking out factories to risking their lives to document the stories of captive fishermen — accomplished what labor activists and governments could not. Their series led to the release of more than 2,000 slaves and forced both the Thai government and the American retailers selling their catch to take action. While covering the story, the AP reporters and editors took extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of the eight men they had quoted or interviewed on camera, refused to publish images that may exploit the children working in the fish processing factories, went to great lengths to confirm the accuracy of their report and gave the U.S. companies named in the story a chance to respond to allegations before publishing.

According to Mendoza, she and her fellow reporters were not the only ones who showed bravery. “These enslaved and trapped men, women and children risked their lives when they spoke to us, yet they told their stories with courage and integrity,” she said. “We are gratified and humbled by this recognition, which is a reflection of the high standards of ethical behavior AP adheres to as we gather and deliver the news.”

The journalists’ willingness to put themselves at risk to get the story and protect their sources made the AP story stand out in an exceptionally strong field of entries. “The reporters and their editors faced tough ethical questions, including whether or not to alert authorities pre-publication of the whereabouts of captive slaves, whether or not to remain on private property after being told to leave and whether or not to suppress their work until the slaves they had interviewed were safe,” said Payne Award judge Karen Miller Pensiero, editor of newsroom standards for The Wall Street Journal. “Their decisions, often made in the heat of the moment when they were in personal danger, led to impactful, important and ethical journalism that opened the world’s eyes to a very inhumane story.”

A second 2016 Ancil Payne Award went to the journalists of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who fought for transparency by reporting the secret sale of the newspaper despite management’s warnings to stay away from the story. When the newsroom’s  reporting turned up a trail of egregious business and ethics violations tied to Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, the journalists focused on their professional obligation to readers and published the story. As a result, the Nevada Gaming Control Board is now monitoring Adelson’s use of the newspaper.

“Somewhere in the world right now a journalist is wondering if he should go along to get ahead or if he should do the right thing no matter the personal cost,” said James G. Wright, deputy editor of the Review-Journal. “This particular award honors the journalists of the Review-Journal, but it is really for everyone who chooses to do the right thing.”

Payne Award judge Mike Fancher, former executive editor of the Seattle Times, said the Review-Journal staff’s courage in the face of the very real threat of losing their jobs put them over the top for the win. “This case epitomizes what the Payne Award is all about: principled, courageous behavior under political or economic pressure, inspiring public trust in the media,” he said. “Nobody would want to find themselves in this situation, but they did what they needed to do on behalf of their readers.”

The selection committee also awarded an honorable mention to reporter Jessica Terrell and Honolulu Civil Beat for “The Harbor,” a three-day series portraying life in a 200-person homeless “village” on Oahu’s west coat. Terrell spent months getting to know the people living in Hawaii’s largest homeless encampment. Her insight and sensitivity in telling their stories — from determining if or when she could buy her sources a cup of coffee, to ensuring they understood the ramifications of appearing in the story, to protecting the identities of women hiding from their abusers — was in part a result of her own experiences growing up homeless.

“Her experiences living homeless gave her some sensitivities that many would not have had,” said Joann Byrd, a Payne Award judge and retired editorial page editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “She did a particularly good job explaining the issues she’d faced, and her ethical decision-making was insightful and sophisticated.”

This year’s Ancil Payne Award judges included Pensiero, Fancher and Byrd; Bob Ortega, managing editor of the Honolulu Civil Beat and a 2015 Payne Award winner; Julianne Newton, interim Edwin L. Artzt Dean for the SOJC; Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week; David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s School of Media and Communication; Tom Bivins, an SOJC professor and Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics; Therese Bottomly, managing editor and director of state and enterprise at The Oregonian; and Stephen Ward, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at University of Wisconsin-Madison and distinguished lecturer in ethics for the University of British Columbia. The Payne Conflict Policy requires all judges to declare any conflicts and to recuse themselves from discussion of, or voting on, nominees when they have a conflict of interest.

The SOJC will present the Payne Award to the winning nominees during a ceremony on the UO campus on Thursday, April 28. While on campus, the journalists will visit SOJC classes and participate in a panel discussion about ethics in journalism. The public is invited to attend the panel at 3-4 p.m. in Allen Hall Room 221 as well as the awards ceremony and reception in the Allen Hall Atrium at 4-5:30 p.m.

Story by Andra Brichacek