USC Annenberg National Health Journalism Fellow Michael LaForgia.
Courtesy of Michael LaForgia

USC Center for Health Journalism fellow wins Pulitzer, Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and more for “Failure Factory” series

USC Annenberg National Health Journalism Fellow Michael LaForgia and his team at the Tampa Bay Times have won another prestigious journalism award for their 2015 “Failure Factory” series: the “Excellence in Local Reporting” honor offered by the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.

LaForgia, along with Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner, explored how abandoning integration turned five once-average schools in wealthy Pinellas County into some of the worst in Florida. The investigation uncovered violence, high teacher turnover and academic failure at those elementary schools, and held the local school board accountable. It prompted a federal and state investigation, a visit by the U.S. Secretary of Education and a host of reforms.

“It's gratifying to be recognized for our work, but the real important thing is the attention it brings to what we reported on,” LaForgia said. “There are kids here who desperately need this community to get—and keep—a conscience about what has happened in our public schools. I hope all the recognition will help keep the pressure on.”

The latest honor adds to a number of prestigious awards the project has received, including the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. The team also received Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation’s Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism; the George Polk Award for education reporting; as well as top honors from Investigative Reporters & Editors; the National Press Foundation and the American Society of News Editors.

Center for Health Journalism Fellowship project recognized in national journalism circles

Columbia Journalism Review anointed the series, produced as a Fellowship project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, as among the best journalism in 2015. “The fact that the Times was able to hold accountable the decision-makers who gave up on hundreds of children elevated this investigation from an interesting look at data to a damning indictment of local leaders,” Susannah Nesmith wrote in CJR.

The series led to a string of reforms. The School Board voted to end discipline policies that unfairly targeted black children for harsh punishments. Florida lawmakers added funds for the schools featured in the series. The district also announced a new special administrator who was hired to turn around the five schools and who would get his own team, according to the newspaper. Plaintiffs in a federal desegregation suit are going back to court, and community leaders are also taking the issue to state court.

In granting the project a Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting, the American Society of News Editors heralded a series that  “resulted in immediate impact: creation of magnet programs to improve diversity and teacher quality, financial investment to improve school performance and even a federal investigation into how federal dollars are spent,” according to the American Society of News Editors. “The Times team exemplified the power and importance of local investigative reporting and why it matters."

Health Fellowship Contributes

LaForgia said the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism informed the series’ reporting, specifically a section called “Lessons in Fear,” which documents violence in the schools. There, LaForgia describes a seven-year-old student who said she did not want to live anymore. The girl had been tormented about her weight, her shoes, her family and how she wore her hair.

As LaForgia synthesized his reporting on that student’s experience, he thought back to seminars and lectures he attended during his 2015 National Fellowship, jointly funded by The California Endowment and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Several speakers discussed the health impact of chronic stress, which can erode a child’s physical and mental wellbeing as well as their ability to learn. That second-grader’s experience seemed to fit.

“I thought, this sounds exactly like some of the stuff we talked about in the fellowship – I should get some experts on the phone and see if this bears out – and, it did, so that was really gratifying,” he said. “It wasn’t something I would have looked for, had I not sat through the excellent presentations on this emerging field of study.”

As a result, LaForgia and his team devoted a whole section in Part 2 to the effects of chronic stress, including insights from Dr. Matthew Biel of Georgetown University who explained “even if you’re not being beaten daily, if you have been beaten, or if you’re in an environment where that seems like it might be imminently possible, the effects that that has on you as a child are profound. And the effects are biological. They impact physical health, mental health and the ability to learn.”

Along with adding context to the reporting, the Center for Health Journalism also provided substantial financial assistance through its Fund for Journalism on Child Well-being. The grant paid for $7,500 of the more than $10,000 spent on acquiring public records and data. Those record requests included student discipline referrals, teacher certification scores for the entire state of Florida, thousands of internal emails, and results of every teacher certification exam.

“So we knew which teachers had failed 44 times and which ones passed on the first try,” LaForgia said.

The financial help was much appreciated, he added: ““Our newspaper, like most newspapers, is not in the best financial position at the moment, so every little bit of help when it comes to offsetting costs in a long investigative project like this is hugely beneficial.”

LaForgia, who has attended a multitude of journalism conferences, said the USC Annenberg fellowship made quite an impression.

“I loved it – the fellowship was really unique,” he said. “It gave a ton of information and access to experts and it gave me a bunch of story ideas.”

He was especially intrigued by the research on the brain and trauma shared by Dr. Pat Levitt, a developmental neurogeneticist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, medical school professor at the University of Southern California, and expert on the affects of trauma and neglect on childhood development. 

He also enjoyed Dr. Anthony Iton’s presentation on health disparities, which traces data showing that neighborhoods can experience decades of neglect, overlaid with racial discrimination, affecting the long term health of its residents – so much so that a zip code can become a predictor of the age in which you’ll die.

“The presenter was so good and the evidence he had linking systemic societal issues with actual health issues was so strong,” he said. “People like to treat ideas like poverty or inequality as always-present conditions in the world when, in fact, they are usually the result of decisions made by decision makers for many years. It would be great if there was more journalism out there that held policy makers accountable for those kinds of outcomes.”

Given his track record, it wouldn’t be surprising if LaForgia takes on the challenge in his next project. 

Kellie Schmitt is a Seattle - based health journalist. She writes about health reform for the Center for Health Journalism's Remaking Health Care blog. In 2012, she was a USC Annenberg California health journalism fellow.
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