The Arizona Republic, along with two other news outlets, won the 2020 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism, one of journalism’s most prestigious accolades.
The “Copy. Paste. Legislate” series was published in cooperation with USA TODAY and the Center for Public Integrity. He was one of six finalists for the award. The victory was announced Monday by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Republic’s Rob O’Dell, an investigative and data journalist, and investigations editor Michael Squires helped lead the project, which was the first attempt to document the extent of special interest control over the national legislation.
READ THE SERIES: You elected them to write laws. They let the companies do it.
When legislators propose new laws, they don’t always write the bills themselves. Companies, interest groups, and lobbyists often write papers to fill out and then submit them to state legislators. The organizations’ reporters searched for laws written by special interests and found them in all 50 states.
Data from the project allowed journalists to show how powerful such “model legislation” has become. Model legislation effectively gives corporations or other groups control over language that ultimately becomes law.
The 2019 report revealed the most frequently copied model bills and how special interests lobbied to spread them from state to state.
“This fantastic reporting shines a spotlight on state and local media on the origins of the legislation that is being passed in state houses across the country,” the judges noted in Monday’s announcement.
“There are few things more important for journalism to watch than government, and there are few things we fear more than covert manipulation by our government,” said Greg Burton, editor of The Republic. “With overwhelming evidence and careful analysis of the data, that’s exactly what these reporters revealed.”
Squires, a key staff writer for The Republic who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, pitched the idea after attending a conference of investigative reporters and editors in 2016.
A team of developers, data reporters, computer specialists, and other reporters from the USA TODAY Network was created to build a computer analysis system based on this idea.
O’Dell refined a computer algorithm that ran uninterrupted for months on the equivalent of 150 computers. This process revealed when special interest language was copied into bills or bills that were signed into law.
Separately, reporters from the Center for Public Integrity in 2016 had written articles revealing model legislation sponsored by actors such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), tobacco companies and the pharmaceutical lobby. The center was also creating a database to analyze similarities in legislation nationwide.
The Republic and USA TODAY joined forces with the Center for Public Integrity in 2019 to conduct further investigation and reach a wider audience.
Beyond findings on the extent of copycat legislation, the series revealed how such bills allow car dealerships to avoid the consequences of fatal car defects, how so-called anti-abortion laws “beat of hearts” have emerged from a 10-year campaign to craft the language, and how bills that purport to target terrorist groups continue to pass even when they have no effect.
The annual Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Journalism honors investigative journalism that best promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, public policy-making or the practice of politics. Each finalist or finalist team receives $10,000. The first prize is $25,000.
The program is managed by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, which is dedicated to “exploring and illuminating the intersection of media, politics and public policy “.
Other finalists for this year’s award included reporting “The Afghanistan Papers” from the Washington Post, “Lawless” by Kyle Hopkins from Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica,
The contest drew more than 175 entries, a record, according to Nancy Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center.
The Goldsmith Prize announcement was scheduled for an event at Harvard on March 12, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
The announcement was made in a YouTube video.
“This is not how we expected to award the Goldsmith Prize,” Gibbs said.
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