Two Alumni Share Washington Post-The Guardian U.S. Prize for Public Service
By Gwen Girsdansky
Columbia, Mo. (April 21, 2014) – An alumnus of the Missouri School of Journalism has been awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor given for U.S. journalism.
Chris Hamby, MA ’10, received the medal in the investigative reporting category for “Breathless and Burdened,” a series that exposed the systematic denial of benefits for coal workers with black lung disease.
In addition, two alumni, Jeff Leen, MA ’82, and Steven Rich, MA ’13, were members of The Washington Post team led by Bart Gellman that shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with a team from The Guardian U.S. They covered the NSA surveillance reports based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.
The citation for the “Breathless and Burdened” series cites Hamby “for his reports on how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease, resulting in remedial legislative efforts.”
The series grew, Hamby said, out of a previous Center for Public Integrity investigation into the increasing number of black lung cases. However, it became apparent that there was also a story about how the coal miners with the disease, or their widows, were being systematically denied benefits. Thus started a yearlong investigation that focused on the law firm Jackson Kelly, which serves the coal industry, and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, one of the most respected hospitals in the country.
Hamby used the skills he learned at the Missouri School of Journalism and the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR, headquartered at the School) to build databases from thousands of legal documents. These showed that Jackson Kelly was withholding documents that would have proven the coal miners had black lung disease and were entitled to benefits. Hamby also was able to show that the firm’s lawyers were not denying they had the documents, but were arguing time and time again they were allowed to.
At the beginning, the situation was complex and complicated.
“It’s like a puzzle, and you don’t realize that there’s a missing piece,” Hamby said.
But eventually he discovered pieces were missing and where to find them. Hamby became well-versed in the legal and medical system to understand the dynamics at play and translate them into laymen’s terms for readers. In addition, Hamby also worked to move away from “he said-she said” reporting that can be popular in journalism and forces readers to determine who is right. Although time consuming, Hamby was able to present the information as fact with limited attribution because he was hearing the same information from different sources so frequently, and documents and data painted a clear picture.
“I think our job is to determine, as close as we can, what is true,” Hamby said.
However, Hamby also realized there needed to be a human component to his work. The first installment focused on the story of Gary Fox, a coal miner from West Virginia, who had died three years before the investigation began.
“His widow and daughter were really brave and forthcoming in such a horrible situation,” he said.
The combination of data and anecdotes created compelling narratives that led to a congressman calling for a federal investigation into black lung benefits and the suspension of Johns Hopkins’ black lung program.
Hamby’s winning series of reports, “Breathless and Burdened,” have been compiled in a Reynolds Journalism Institute Digital Newsbook produced by RJI’s technology pioneer Roger Fidler.
In mid-April, days after winning his Pulitzer, Hamby accepted a new position with the BuzzFeed investigative unit. The media website, best known for promoting viral content, introduced an investigative unit in fall 2013. Hamby said he looks forward to continuing probing into the intersection of vulnerable populations and powerful organizations.
Hamby’s Pulitzer win follows a string of top awards earned while a student at the School. He received first place in the Best Breaking News Story category in the 2011 Missouri Press Association‘s Better Newspaper Contest. The judges said of “Key Witness Recants in Ryan Ferguson Case,” published in the Columbia Missourian, “a lot of good work here, pulling together a nine-year-old case and getting all of the facts into the context of the convicted man’s new claims. Nicely done.”
Hamby was the 2009 Society of Professional Journalists National Mark of Excellence Award winner in the non-fiction magazine article category. The story, “Keeper of the Court,” was published in Vox Magazine. His master’s project, “The Ryan Ferguson Case: An Examination of a Strange Murder and Conviction,” was an investigation of a wrongful conviction for a notorious murder. This work later ran as a two-part series in The Kansas City Star, and the subject of the stories won his freedom in 2013.
Databases Fuel Pulitzer Win by Washington Post and The Guardian U.S.
Much like Hamby’s investigation, the Washington Post and The Guardian U.S.’s coverage of National Security Agency spying was heavily reliant on documents provided by databases.
Two Missouri School of Journalism alumni were members of The Washington Post team led by Bart Gellman that shared the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service with a team from The Guardian U.S.: Jeff Leen, MA ’82, the assistant managing editor of investigations, and Steven Rich, MA ’13, database editor for investigations.
The citation for the Washington Post-The Guardian U.S. noted their “revelation of widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency, marked by authoritative and insightful reports that helped the public understand how the disclosures fit into the larger framework of national security.”
Leen, who was the lead editor during the initial phase, said that this coverage was different from anything else he had done because it was at the intersection of breaking news and investigations.
“Usually with super complex stories with highly sensitive information, you have the time to sort it out, but we were also trying to break these stories as quickly as possible,” Leen said.
He said that documents were often cryptic and since no one had heard of these systems before, they couldn’t just turn to Google or Wikipedia to learn more.
Among the reporters who helped decipher the thousands of documents that were leaked was Rich, who had been an employee for about a month when the story broke. He was able to help determine how close the government was to developing a quantum computer and how the NSA was identifying users on what is supposed to be anonymous browsing.
Both Leen and Rich cited the necessity of teamwork to produce quality journalism. Those in the legal department determined which documents to publish. The graphics team added visual elements to help the readers.
“The best journalism is done in teams that are very unselfish,” Rich said.
For Leen, this was the eighth Pulitzer Prize-winning team he has been a part of and said that this one was special because it was the Pulitzer for public service reporting.
“It’s our highest mission,” Leen said. “It makes it extra special. It’s the entire newspaper doing great work for the public.”
Leen received the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism in 2012. As a master’s student, Leen did a stint in the School’s Washington reporting program where he covered Congress, the Supreme Court and federal agencies.
For Rich, the Pulitzer follows on the heels of another team recognition, the Local Accountability Reporting Award in the 2014 American Society of News Editors competition. Rich’s master’s project was on how journalists report on money in politics. He completed it while interning for Leen on the Post’s investigations unit.
Updated: August 15, 2019