Washington Post Wins Selden Ring Award

02/24/05
The annual USC Annenberg honor for investigative journalism goes to the newspaper for its expose of lead contamination in tap water. The articles led to the dismissal of a public health official.
By Geoff Baum


Reporters and editors from The Washington Post have won the 2005 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for their series exposing lead contamination in the District of Columbia water supply and the failure of public officials to inform and protect residents.

The $35,000 annual prize, presented by the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, recognizes the year’s outstanding work in investigative journalism that led to direct results.

Beginning in January 2004, Washington Post journalists David Nakamura, Carol D. Leonnig, D’Vera Cohn, Craig Timberg, Monte Reel, Sarah Cohen and Jo Becker began reporting and publishing more than 200 articles alerting local residents to dangerously high levels of lead in tap water.

Their continuing investigation ultimately resulted in the firing of James Buford, director of the District of Columbia Department of Public Health, and revealed that water agencies across the country have manipulated or withheld test results that disclose high levels of lead content.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with federal prosecutors, environmental officials and state regulators are now investigating whether several water utilities have broken criminal or environmental laws by misrepresenting the lead levels in their drinking water.

“The Washington Post’s work was a very important piece of journalism important to every man, woman and child living in the District of Columbia, drinking its water and thinking it was pure. And it was important to the residents of other cities whose water is contaminated by lead and other toxic substances,” said Michael Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of the Los Angeles Times who now serves as director of USC Annenberg’s School of Journalism.

In addition to the Washington Post, judges hailed three other papers for their outstanding work, recognizing them as finalists for the 2005 Selden Ring Award:

Chicago Sun-Times, Tim Novak, Steve Warmbir, “Paid to Do Nothing”:
The Sun-Times “began with a reporter’s observation an idle truck and launched a classic, shoe-leather investigation that led to the elimination of a $40 million program that had benefited Mayor Richard Daley’s cronies and family.”

The New York Times, Diana Henriques, “Financial Advice, at a Price”:
Diana Henriques’ “timely report on how insurance companies, investment firms and lenders have fleeced thousands of soldiers was so specific and concrete that impact was immediate even among a Congress and military that had tolerated the abuse for decades.”

The Seattle Times, Ken Armstrong, Florangela Davila, Justin Mayo, “The Promise of an Equal Defense”: The Times exposed “shocking ineptitude, crushing workloads and attorney profiteering in a series of well-crafted stories that prompted Washington State’s effort to overhaul its indigent judicial-defense program.”

“Investigative reporting is one of the most serious responsibilities that American journalists have, and this year’s Selden Ring entries show that newspapers, large and small, do take it seriously," Parks said.

In April, members of the Washington Post team will come to Los Angeles for the award presentation. They also will meet with students and participate in a symposium on investigative journalism.

The 2005 Selden Ring Award was selected by a distinguished panel of journalists that included Lorraine Branham, director, School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin; Barney Calame, former deputy managing editor, Wall Street Journal; Steven Engelberg, managing editor/enterprise, Portland Oregonian; Martin Kaiser, editor, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mark Katches, senior team leader/County, State & Investigations, The Orange County Register; Shawn McIntosh, deputy managing editor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and Chris Peck, editor, The Commercial Appeal.

The Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting was established in 1989 by the late Selden Ring, a Southern California business leader and philanthropist. He established the award to honor journalists whose investigative reporting informed the public about major problems or corruption in society and yielded concrete results.