An investigation of violence-plagued public schools. A memorable narrative about an autistic young adult achieving independence. A shocking account of unprosecuted rapes on a Native American reservation. An intensive 360-degree examination of a city’s infant mortality crisis. Fresh and personal stories by youth who are undocumented, coming out as LGBT, or dealing with multiple mental health diagnoses. A series of columns about a surprising epidemic of childhood hunger. A photographic essay documenting the journey to recovery of a 9-year-old boy blinded by a stray bullet. These are the journalistic efforts that rose to the top in the 2012 competition for Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism.
Can children learn if their schools are places where violence and chaos can erupt at any moment? This powerhouse of a series opens with teenage girls smearing Vaseline on their faces and tying their hair back in bandanas to prepare for a fight. Anecdote by anecdote, bureaucratic failure by bureaucratic failure, "Assault on Learning" aggressively exposes the treacherous conditions within Philadelphia public schools -- a state of toxic stress and fear that contributes to the dropout crisis -- as well as the utter ineffectiveness of adults and leaders to stop it. Within five months after reporting began, the superintendent was gone, schools started operating more transparently and the system got serious about reform. This series also spotlighted what was working well at individual schools, showing how positive leadership can create a safe place for children and education. Judges praised the series for its depth of analysis, the successful coordination and editing of so many reporters working on a complicated topic. They wrote,“when mainstream media puts its resources behind an issue, this can be the result.”
How will we as neighbors, employers, co-workers and citizens cope with an entire generation of young people whose brains are wired differently? Through the eyes of Justin Canha, an autistic 20-year-old looking for independence, we see a universe. By taking us deep into one vibrant life, Amy Harmon shows us the challenges autistic young adults face as they come of age, as well as the ways society must evolve to accommodate and integrate differently abled adults. Harmon followed Justin during his last year of public high school in Montclair, N.J., where a community-based program under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act effectively helps him transition to adulthood. Harmon documented Justin’s monumental achievements: learning how to use public transportation, finding a job, and making his first real friend. The judges called this piece “excruciatingly well-written,” and said, “this story is moving and funny and unforgettable and important, and full of the kind of detailed character reporting and grace notes to which more explanatory narratives should aspire.” High school educators told the New York Times they were using the stories to strengthen their supportive transition programs for autistic teens.
A meticulous exposé of how industry-sponsored research, lobbying and advertising by infant formula companies have led to a federal government subsidized market for infant formula, despite global consensus on the superior health benefits of breast milk. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program distributes more than half the infant formula sold in the U.S. but the supply provided to new moms is not enough to feed their babies for a full month. As a result, impoverished mothers bear the burden of high out-of-pocket monthly expenses to feed their growing babies. Judges praised this investigation by Women’s eNews as being “in the best tradition of accountability reporting.”
A compelling body of reporting and writing over four months about an ongoing, yet little-known, problem: child hunger in a state that is more associated with tall pines and clear water than empty bellies. Sarasohn put a human face on a shocking statistic and illustrated the real social cost of hunger. The judges praised his columns for their many “stick in your stomach” lines; such as, “If your stock goes down, it may come back up. If you lose your job, you may get another. But if you spend fourth grade wondering if it’s time for lunch yet, you never get that back.”
Dobie’s article tells the story of legal and social dysfunction on a South Dakota Sioux reservation where nearly two-thirds of women are raped and threatened with retaliation, while their rapists roam freely; where hospitals fail to administer rape kits, and where a police dispatcher tells desperate victims of domestic abuse to “hit him back.” The federal government is responsible for prosecuting major crimes in Indian country, but has failed to pursue over 75 percent of the cases brought by the FBI, BIA and tribal police. Victim-survivors may have been denied their day in court, but they did get the chance to testify --to tell their stories -- at kitchen tables, in motel rooms, at corner booths of fast food chains, to a reporter who listened with tremendous empathy. The judges called Dobie’s reporting “diligent and courageous,” and noted “the haunting beauty of her storytelling.”
A playful 9-year-old, walking home to feed his parakeets, was shot and blinded by a bullet meant for someone else. April Saul’s photographic narrative documents the struggles of Jorge Cartagena and his family who were traumatized by gun violence in the streets of Camden, N.J. As a result of this coverage, a local charity helped Jorge move to a new house in a safer neighborhood, readers donated money and the Camden Police Chief became the boy’s friend and mentor. Judges praised April Saul’s ability to capture youthful innocence, tender childhood moments and the real uphill battle facing a boy forced to grow up too soon. Judges wrote, “The words alone would be powerful. So would the photos. Together, they allow the reader to live the aftermath of a terrible tragedy. Anybody who reads this article, and looks at the photos, will find it impossible to take the easy road we all choose -- putting the people hurt by violence aside as ‘statistics.’”
The mysterious explosion in autism cases over the last two decades has raised many questions about the causes of this poorly understood condition. The Los Angeles Times reviewed the scientific literature, interviewed dozens of experts and profiled nine diverse local families who share the love, pain, frustration and pride they feel for their autistic children. The series included a map of autism rates around the U.S., a timeline of key historic moments, and an interactive tool that explains how autism diagnoses are made. The judges called the series “a true public service” and said the reporting offered an early glimpse into the emerging politics and economics of autism diagnosis and treatment.
This outstanding investigation reveals the troubling financial incentive that’s fueling the placement of hundreds of Native American children in foster care. The practice is a disturbing echo of the past, when the U.S. government routinely pulled Native youth from their families and forced them to attend boarding schools. The stories of adults who return home after being sent away to foster care illuminate the human toll on Indian tribes whose very survival depends on children knowing their relatives and learning their culture. The judges said, “This series epitomizes what radio does best: Get into your head, into your heart, under your skin in a way that other media just can't.” In response to the series, U.S. lawmakers demanded action from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.
Go behind the scenes with these Casey Medal honorees: