Investigative Journalism Team Receives 2014 USC Annenberg Selden Ring Award

Journalists gathered at the USC Davidson Conference Center on April 11 for the presentation of the 2014 USC Annenberg Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.

This year’s award was won by a team from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose “Deadly Delays” series documented how delays in newborn screenings at hospitals across the country put babies at risk for disability and even death.

At $35,000, the Selden Ring Award is one of the largest awards in journalism. It honors journalists and investigative work that informs the public about major problems or corruption in society.

“Good journalism should increase civic engagement,” said USC Annenberg School of Journalism Interim Director Michael Parks. “If it doesn’t, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why did you do it?’ or more appropriately, ‘What else should you have done?’

“At Annenberg we advocate solutions-based journalism,” he said. “I think that’s what good journalism does, and particularly what good investigative journalism should do.”

In attendance were Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor Martin Kaiser, managing editor George Stanley and reporter Ellen Gabler, who Parks described as “one of the most dogged reporters I’ve ever met.”

“Basically what I did for two or three months was just negotiate with state health officials,” said Gabler. “I’ve never been more persistent or more organized in my life.”

During the course of their investigation, the team analyzed nearly three million newborn screening tests from across the country. Gabler requested newborn screening data from all 50 states, though she eventually received data from 31, and hospital names from 26, due in part to the fact that some states feared the backlash that could result from disclosing hospital names.

“A lot of these people just thought I was going to go away,” said Gabler of the challenges she faced attempting to attain data from all 50 states. “But I just kind of refused to take no for an answer.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel team created an interactive map to illustrate the data they received and identify where there is still room for improvement.

“I think the reason we got such quick results is because we held people accountable,” said Gabler.

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Selden Ring Award, which was established in 1989 by late business leader and philanthropist Selden Ring, and receives continued support from the Ring Foundation. Cindy Miscikowski,  CEO of The Ring Group, also spoke at the awards ceremony.

“This year’s award-winning story is really profound,” said Miscikowski of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporting, which was selected from 61 entries from across the country. “I can’t remember [reading] one that has brought me to some of the emotional levels that this story did.”

The series was inspired by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Mark Johnson’s story about Colton Hidde, a baby whose life was endangered by a metabolic disease that could have been detected had his newborn screening not been delayed. Thankfully, Colton survived, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel team realized the problem could be more widespread than many realized.

“We’re not afraid to go big,” said Gabler. “We knew this could be more than just one story about one kid who almost died.”

For Gabler, the Selden Ring Award exemplifies the fact that there is still a place, and a need, for comprehensive investigative journalism. 

“I love how [the Selden Ring Award] encourages people to do this kind of work,” said Gabler. “You can absolutely do this kind of work especially if you have great bosses and work hard to do it, so I think the Selden Ring is a great award in that it encourages that.”

As a result of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation, Washington State recently passed a law requiring public disclosure of newborn screening data, and other states will also begin posting their data online, said Gabler.

“We had results throughout the country right away,” said Gabler. “In a lot of these cases there were really simple fixes.”

Having already earned seven other major national awards for “Deadly Delays,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser referred to the Selden Ring Award as the series’ “capstone.”

The team hopes this success will draw attention not just to the issue of newborn screening, but also to how important it is for journalists to be able to do the kind of reporting which made the series--and its findings--possible.

“One thing I felt really lucky for about working at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is that we have great editors who aren’t afraid to elevate the story,” said Gabler. “I wish more newsrooms would do that, to realize when you have a big story, and not just say, ‘oh you get two weeks to do this, or you get a month to do this.’ This took a long time. You really need to be patient because it really pays off in the end.”