Story by Andra Brichacek
To say that journalists have faced a roller-coaster year would be, by any measure, an understatement.
Even before the elections, public trust in the media was at an all-time low. Since November, the press has been the target of unprecedented attacks from the Trump administration that have escalated from accusations of “fake news” to exclusion from the White House to vilification as “the enemy of the American people.”
And yet, journalists have proven themselves a dogged group. They have responded to the attacks with a renewed dedication to their role as the watchdogs of democracy, breaking story after story to significant impact while redoubling their efforts, under intense scrutiny, to maintain the profession’s strict code of ethics and conduct.
“When you have an administration that’s calling us the enemy, it’s crucial for hard-hitting journalism to be done in an ethical way,” said Karen Miller Pensiero, editor of newsroom standards for The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not a time for us to lower our standards. It’s a time for us to continue our high standards and report the stories that need to be reported.”
Pensiero recently served as a judge on the selection committee for the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s 17th annual Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. Each year, the SOJC awards the highly selective Payne Award and a $5,000 prize to journalists and news organizations from around the nation that have demonstrated extraordinary commitment to ethical decision-making and conduct, even when faced with economic, personal or political pressure.
“There has never been a more important time to celebrate journalists who serve the public interest,” said Tim Gleason, director of the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism and a professor of journalism at the SOJC. “Journalists and a free press are essential to a functioning democratic society. The Payne Award honors the long tradition of journalists who serve the public interest as well as the example they set for future generations.”
Dreier and her editors rose to the top of an exceptionally strong pool of 29 nominees due to their responses to the host of challenging ethical decisions they faced while producing journalism that made a real difference. In “A Child’s Scraped Knee,” Dreier told the story of Venezuela’s crumbling medical system through the prism of one child’s life-or-death struggle. During the course of planning and reporting the story, she and her editors continually balanced the well-being of her subjects against her journalistic imperative to stay uninvolved. When considering such difficult questions as whether to supply life-saving medicine, or whether to put sources at risk in an environment that does not allow media, the AP team made careful decisions to uphold the integrity of her story while protecting sources and responding to subjects’ needs.
“It’s very difficult sometimes to distinguish between your role as a reporter and your role as a human being,” said Payne Award judge and 2014 Payne Award winner Bob Ortega, a senior reporter who covers the child welfare system for the Arizona Republic. “It is clear that Hannah and the people she was working with thought very hard to decide: What do we do here? Is there a point at which we say, ‘I’ll just go buy the drugs myself?’”
“They thought about all the right things,” said Pensiero. “They really showed a commitment to thinking about the various ethical challenges they were possibly going to face when they reported this.”
Upper left: Ashley Pacheco sits in a chair on a balcony at University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) Lower left: In this Aug. 17, 2016, photo, 3-year-old Ashley Pacheco waits with her father Maykol to have her stitches removed from her left leg at University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. When she arrived at the hospital, Ashley’s left leg had swollen from the tip of her toe to the top of her thigh. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) Insert: In this Aug. 24, 2016, photo, Oriana Pacheco places a bandage on the knee of her 3-year-old daughter Ashley during their two-month stay at University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela. Ashley’s scraped knee led to a staph infection. Oriana spent each night curled around Ashley in a room with eight other patients. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) Center right: Ashley Pacheco listens to music as she looks at her father Maykol Pacheco, at the University Hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, Aug. 11, 2016. Venezuela is running short on 85 percent of basic medicines. As the health care system collapses, the tiniest slips, like a little girl’s tumble while chasing her brother, are turning into life-or-death crises. (Oct. 4)
In addition to Dreier’s award-winning piece, two other nominees stood out as finalists for the award: Shane Bauer’s undercover work for Mother Jones and Anne Galloway’s series of articles in VTDigger.
Bauer took a job as a prison guard to report on the conditions inside a private prison in “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard.” As a result of the risks he took and the time he put in, Mother Jones published a compelling 35,000-word story that ultimately contributed to the U.S. Department of Justice’s decision to stop contracting with private prisons.
“If he just dug up the information from disgruntled employees, he could have still put a story together,” said Payne Award judge Tom Bivins, the SOJC’s John L. Hulteng Chair in Media Ethics and Responsibility. “But as everybody knows, just giving people information isn’t always enough. You have to get their attention first. The story carries a lot more impact in this form.”
Galloway, a reporter for the Vermont-based news website VTDigger, uncovered fraud and misuse of funds in a major government-backed resort project in an economically depressed part of the state. Despite intense pressure from business, government and the community, Galloway and her small publication ran 150 stories about the Jay Peak Resort over two years before federal regulators finally accused the developers of misusing $200 million in investor funds.
“They had the guts to do this despite all the money and political resistance,” said Bivins. “It was an awful lot of work from a small organization with the nerve and perseverance to get something done in the face of really tough pressure.”
The SOJC will present the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism and a $5,000 prize to Dreier and her AP editors during a ceremony on April 18 in Allen Hall. While on campus, the award winners and finalists will visit SOJC classes and participate in a public panel discussion about ethics in journalism.
Andra Brichacek is the SOJC Communication team’s head writer and editor. She has nearly 20 years’ experience creating content for print and online media and has specialized in education since 2008. Follow her on Twitter @andramere.