Journalists share one of the strictest ethical codes in the world. The Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism, established in 1999 by Seattle broadcasting legend Ancil Payne, celebrates the tough decisions made in the newsroom and in the field—decisions that make a difference in the community but are often invisible to the public. The $10,000 annual prize rewards media organizations and journalists who report with integrity despite personal, political, or economic pressure.
In early 2019, Injustice Watch journalists Emily Hoerner and Rick Tulsky published “In Plain View,” an exposé of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and violent social media content posted by more than 2,000 police officers around the nation. Despite the threat of a lawsuit that could shut down the small media outlet, Injustice Watch prioritized the public’s right to know the truth, earning them the 2020 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.
The MPR newsroom earned the 2019 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for its transparent and unbiased coverage of the fall from grace of one of its network’s biggest stars—Garrison Keillor—who 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. Read more about the 2019 winners.
When Seattle’s mayor faced accusations of sexual assault, Seattle Times journalists Jim Brunner and Lewis Kamb had to decide whether—and how—to break a story that would shake their city to its core. Despite intense pressure from politicians and angry readers, they continued their investigation, meticulously vetting sources and publishing follow-up articles as more accusers came forward. Read more about the 2018 winners.
Hannah Dreier and Her Associated Press Editors won the 2017 Ancil Payne Award for “A Child’s Scraped Knee,” part of the AP’s “Venezuela Undone” series. As Dreier reported the story of Venezuela’s crumbling medical system through the prism of one child’s life-or-death struggle, she and her editors balanced the wellbeing of their subjects against their journalistic imperative to stay uninvolved, making difficult ethical decisions such as whether to supply life-saving medicine or put sources at risk.
Associated Press reporters Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza, and Esther Htu San won for their "Seafood from Slaves series," which investigated the human trafficking in Thailand’s $7 billion seafood industry.
Las Vegas Review-Journal fought for transparency by reporting the secret sale of their newspaper despite management’s warnings to stay away from the story.
Playwickian editors Gillian McGoldrick, Reed Hennessy, Jackson Haines, and Madison Buffardi faced adversity at every turn when they decided to ban their high school’s mascot name, Redskins, from their 3,000-circulation monthly publication.
David Jackson, Gary Marx, Duaa Eldeib, and the Chicago Tribune's five-part series, “Harsh Treatment,” tells the story of hundreds of young Illinois state wards who were assaulted and raped while state authorities failed to act on reports of harm.
Daniel Gonzalez and Bob Ortega series for the Arizona Republic, “A Pipeline for Children,” told the story of the surge of children and families fleeing from Central America across the southern U.S. border in 2014.
Michael Phillips of the Wall Street Journal won for his series “The Lobotomy Files,” an in-depth investigation into the roughly 2,000 soldiers lobotomized during and after World War II by the U.S. Veterans Administration.
Editor Abbey Crain, magazine editor Matt Ford, and editor-in-chief Mazie Bryant of the University of Alabama’s Crimson White newspaper won for their work on “The Final Barrier,” which examines segregation in Greek life at the University of Alabama.
The selection committee also honored the Thomson Reuters news organization for its decision to publish the three-part series “Assets of the Ayatollah.” Although the organization was warned by sources within Iran that publishing the series might endanger the news organization’s attempts to reopen its Tehran bureau and faced mounting costs in securing the safety of their employees in the region, Reuters persisted in supporting its reporters in getting the story.
Robert “Alex” Green, a student journalist from Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, published a story about the arrest and resignation of a Bible professor at the conservative Christian college despite the president of the college forbidding it.
The Yancey County News, a weekly newspaper in rural Burnsville, North Carolina, and freelance journalists Matthew LaPlante and Rick Egan, were honored for “Is the tide turning against the killing of ‘cursed’ infants in Ethiopia?” documenting the ritual killing of “cursed” children in Ethiopia’s South Omo River Valley. The Yancey County News, in 15 months of operation, established itself as a check on corrupt local law enforcement.
When Egan and LaPlante chose to report on the ritual killing of mingi, or “cursed,” children in Ethiopia—a story that had previously been unnoticed by world media—they first approached their employer, the Salt Lake Tribune, for funding but were turned down. Without employer support, fellowships were unavailable. The two cashed in vacation days, tapped savings—LaPlante even quit his job at the paper—to pursue the story, which was eventually published by CNN.
Broaching a sensitive subject through a translator, discovering illegal adoptions, and the potential for being present when a child was killed were only a few of the ethical challenges the reporters contemplated before they commenced their reporting. In addition to their willingness to risk their economic security, the judges applauded Egan and LaPlante for their careful consideration of the ethical issues in advance.
“Having resolved their ethical dilemmas in advance of leaving the United States, these journalists were able to report this tragic story in a way that was direct and very effective,” the judges said.
The judges called the work of Jonathan and Susan Austin, who started the Yancey County News in Burnsville, North Carolina–the county seat of Yancey County, population 17,700–in 2011 after Jonathan’s nearly 30-year journalism career, “classic public interest journalism at great personal and economic risk.” Shortly after it began publication, the paper reported a state investigation into elections fraud involving the sheriff’s department that other local papers had ignored. Also in 2011, the paper reported that the deputy sheriff, who many revered for his tough-on-crime attitude, was pawning county-owned firearms for personal gain.
The New York Times received the award for its handling of controversial material released by Julian Assange on the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website in 2010, including classified government documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. The judges recognized Executive Editor Bill Keller and the Times for the paper’s deliberate and thoughtful process in treating Assange as a source, rather than a partner; in maintaining the paper’s journalistic independence while consulting with the U.S. government before publishing sensitive information; and in explaining its process to the public. “We cannot overestimate the political pressures from all sides,” the Payne judges’ statement said. “The Times took the time and resources to do a magnificent job with their investigation and reporting. It would have been very easy, considering what was already being published online at that time, to take shortcuts or limit the scope. The Times made thoughtful, carefully calculated, and line-by-line decisions on what they would print and why.”
Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Ferriday, Louisiana, received the Payne Award for his investigation into the murder of Frank Morris, a black Ferriday businessman, in 1964. The murder had been ignored by law enforcement for more than 40 years. The Sentinel investigated the murder as well as another cold case—both allegedly the work of the Ku Klux Klan—for three years, publishing nearly 200 stories. The final story named Morris’s alleged murderer and was ready for publication in December 2010. It was held until January 12, 2011, at the request of Justice Department officials while the FBI completed interviews in its own investigations, which were officially reopened as a result of Nelson’s work. A grand jury was convened in February. In presenting the award, the judges recognized “the huge social, economic, and political pressures on a small-town paper in the south to keep a racially motivated killing in the past. There was great personal risk—even death threats. There was no doubt a direct economic impact, both lost subscriptions and personal expense. This is as pure a definition of journalistic courage as one could craft in 2011. For Stanley Nelson to start down the tunnel and follow it for three years required a degree of ethical fortitude that is rare and should be celebrated.”
In “Meet the Parents,” which was published in Mother Jones in March 2009, freelance writer Scott Carney followed the story of a child who was kidnapped from his parents in India and sold through intermediaries and corrupt adoption agencies to an American family. Because police cases in the United States and India ground to a halt, Carney was the first person to make contact with the family in the U.S. The Payne Award judges applauded not only Carney’s exhaustive research but his willingness to engage in the story in a personal way and to reveal that in his writing. “He consciously recognized that he was part of the story—in fact, his participation was part of the story,” the judges’ statement reads. “The story included a number of ethical crossroads, and it is clear that these decisions were carefully considered.”
Farnaz Fassihi, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy bureau chief in the Middle East and Africa, was nominated by Senior Deputy Managing Editor Michael Miller for reportage in Iran, specifically for “her skill in navigating an emotionally charged news environment” and illuminating the complex situation there—even as her work put her personally at risk. The Payne Award judges applauded Fassihi for her “thorough, fair, honest, and courageous reporting in producing a body of work that puts a human face on the crisis in Iran.”
The Seattle Times won the Payne News Organization award for its reporting on the University of Washington’s football program in a four-part series, “Victory and Ruins.” The series, written by Times staff reporters Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry, revealed a network of lawmakers, university administrators, and athletic boosters who protected more than two dozen UW football players who had been arrested while in college, some for violent felonies.
The Payne Award judges recognized the paper’s willingness to devote rich resources to tackling a story “it easily could have ignored or reported very matter-of-factly.” “Taking on football at the University of Washington is taking on an institution," they noted. "The Times’ willingness to spend money to do so, while risking the ire of the community—as well as to expose its own previous failings in covering the story—is commendable.”
News Organization—The Seattle Times
Individual Journalist—Glen Mabie
News Organization—The Phoenix New Times and Spokane Spokesman-Review
Collegiate Media—Ashley Gough, editor of the Mount Observer at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts
News Organization—The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times
Individual Journalist—Staff, the Santa Barbara News-Press
Special Citation—The Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer
Special Citation—Josh Wolf
News Organization—The Spokane Spokesman-Review
Individual Journalist—Kurt Eichenwald, the New York Times
News Organization—The Denver Post
Individual Journalist—Kevin Sites
Collegiate Media—The State Press, Arizona State University
Special Citation—Jon Leiberman
News Organization—South Florida Sun Sentinel
Individual Journalist—Virginia Gerst
Collegiate Media—Joel Elliott, The Talon, Toccoa Falls College
Special Citation—The Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times
News Organization—Bakersfield Californian
Individual Journalist—Paul DeMain
Collegiate Media—The Advocate, Mt. Hood (Oregon) Community College
Special Citation—Journal of the American Medical Association
News Organization—Voice of America
Individual Journalist—Jay Harris
Collegiate Media—KOMU-TV, University of Missouri
Special Citation—WCPO-TV and Vanessa Leggett
News Organization—The Jackson Sun, Jackson, Tennessee
Individual Journalist—David Offer
Individual Journalist—D’Anne Hamilton and Nellie Moore, “Native Voice Communications”
News Organization—Union Democrat
Individual Journalist—Staff of the Los Angeles Times
Collegiate Media—Western Washington University