Minnesota Public Radio’s #MeToo coverage earns 2019 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism

The newsroom staff of Minnesota Public Radio News.
The newsroom staff of Minnesota Public Radio News won the 2019 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for its coverage of sexual misconduct allegations against “A Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor. The team covering the story included (clockwise from top) Eric Ringham, Meg Martin, Euan Kerr, Matt Sepic and Laura Yuen. Photo by Evan Frost, MPR News.

Garrison Keillor produced and hosted “A Prairie Home Companion” for Minnesota Public Radio for 42 years. Then he was accused of inappropriate behavior at the height of the #MeToo movement.

The MPR newsroom’s transparent and unbiased coverage of the fall from grace of one of its network’s biggest stars earned the 2019 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

The annual award is administered by the School of Journalism and Communication. It was established in 1999 by the family of Seattle broadcasting legend Ancil Payne to honor the difficult ethical choices journalists make behind the scenes — critical decisions that are often invisible to the public.

“The Minnesota Public Radio News staff are the embodiment of journalistic integrity,” said Juan-Carlos Molleda, Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor of the School of Journalism and Communication. “They showed courage in their willingness to pursue the truth despite resistance from Keillor, his fans and their employer. They covered a sensitive topic accurately, fairly and respectfully. And they acted with transparency every step of the way.”

When MPR News began investigating why its network had terminated contracts with Keillor’s production company, it had surprisingly little to go on. In 2017, Keillor broke the news publicly that MPR and its parent company, American Public Media Group, had severed all ties with him due to “inappropriate conduct” with a female employee.

American Public Media Group’s senior leadership refused to disclose the details behind its decisions, but the MPR newsroom declared its editorial independence and launched an investigation into the conduct of both Keillor and its own management. It also invited public comments and questions. As the journalists covered the story of their network’s shortcomings, they risked backlash not only from those who signed their paychecks, but also from Keillor and many of “A Prairie Home Companion’s” 2.6 million fans.

“Some of our fellow employees at MPR felt we were being disloyal or disrespectful,” said Eric Ringham, the editor who led the investigative team. “And among many of the people who had been fans or colleagues of Keillor over the years, there was a sense that he was being railroaded.”

To maintain editorial distance, the journalists covering the Keillor story stopped attending staff meetings and conducted interviews outside the office. Instead of inside information, they relied on traditional “shoeleather” reporting techniques, such as public records requests. They also collected multiple source confirmations to ensure accuracy and minimize harm to those who reported the misconduct.

“Keillor’s phenomenal popularity helped build Minnesota Public Radio, and with it, MPR News,” Ringham said. “Our news operation had gone after big targets before, including sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Now that an episode of alleged misconduct was affecting our own company and its best-known personality, we had no choice but to cover it as aggressively and transparently as we could.”

After interviewing more than 70 of his coworkers, MPR News revealed Keillor’s years-long history of belittling, sexualizing and mistreating women. The newsroom reported multiple allegations, including evidence that his production company had paid a “Prairie Home” freelance writer $16,000 to keep their romantic relationship quiet and a lawsuit a female coworker initiated against MPR in 1998 charging age and sexual discrimination on Keillor’s part.

“The field of entries this year was extremely strong,” said Bob Ortega, a writer for “CNN Investigates,” 2014 Payne Award winner and member of the Payne Award Selection Committee. “It was heartening to see so many reporters and news organizations discussing and carefully considering how to handle tough ethical decisions, especially at a time when journalism has come under growing political pressure and real physical risk. We felt that Minnesota Public Radio News showed particular care in how it approached a story that cut close to home, that could alienate many listeners and that reporters and editors knew they needed to dig into and explain.”

The Ancil Payne Award Selection Committee, which includes School of Journalism and Communication faculty and journalism professionals, also recognized three finalists from U.S. news organizations who reported about atrocities committed around the world during 2018.

Finalists Maggie Michael, Nariman Ayman El-Mofty and Maad al-Zikry of the Associated Press highlighted the continued humanitarian atrocities occurring in Yemen in “Yemen’s Dirty War.” Michael, a 2018 Payne Award finalist, and her team traveled across the war-torn country to shine light on stories of child soldiers, torture, corruption and starving children while facing life-threatening dangers and the ethical challenges inherent in covering the effects of war on vulnerable people.

ProPublica journalist Hannah Dreier, winner of the 2017 Payne Award, was also named a finalist. Her article, “A Betrayal,” tells the story of a New York immigrant identified as “Henry” who was facing deportation to El Salvador, despite becoming a government informant, for his alleged involvement in the MS-13 gang. Fearing he would be killed if he returned to his home country, Henry and his lawyer decided telling his story publicly was the only way to save his life. As Dreier noted in her award nomination, “How do you write about a teenager who wants his story told, when there is no safe way to tell it?” After the story broke, donations flooded in, allowing Henry to support himself safely in a third country.

The third finalist for this year’s Payne Award is Joshua Fang for “Sonja O’Donnell Sues Deerfield Academy.” A high school senior and co-editor-in-chief of Deerfield Academy’s student newspaper, Fang discovered that a former teacher had filed a lawsuit against his school alleging a pattern of gender discrimination and retaliation for advocating on behalf of female students who reported sexual violence. Leading up to publication, Fang had to overcome resistance from a newspaper adviser, the school’s legal counsel and head administrator, and the lawsuit plaintiff.

“Ancil Payne established the Payne Award to celebrate and put in the spotlight journalists who made and stood by tough ethical decisions when it would have been easy to walk away,” said Tim Gleason, journalism professor and director of the Payne Awards. “He believed that Payne Award winners should be role models for current and future generations. With journalists and journalism facing unprecedented political and economic pressures, Payne Award winners cut through the noise and the chatter to affirm the power of ethical journalists.”

The School of Journalism and Communication invites the UO community to meet the Ancil Payne Award winners and Payne family at an award ceremony and reception on April 24, 12-2 p.m., in the EMU Redwood Auditorium. The winners will provide a brief talk about their story and participate in a moderated Q&A with the audience. Lunch will be provided.

—By Becky Hoag, Class of ’19, and Andra Brichacek