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Baltimore Sun wins James S. Keat Freedom of Information Award 2015

The Baltimore Sun is the winner of MDDC’s 2015 James S. Keat Freedom of Information Award for its work using public records to give readers answers about the death of Freddie Gray, a west Baltimore man who suffered mortal injuries while in police custody, the subsequent unrest and a culture of brutality at the city police department. Three very strong nominations were received for this award.

The award was judged by a distinguished panel:  Tom Marquardt, retired editor and publisher of The Capital in Annapolis and Frank Quine, retired assistant dean of the University of Maryland Phillip Merrill College of Journalism.  The judges were impressed by the work represented, noting it was “absolutely incredible”, including insight and commentary buttressed by strong reporting from public records.  The public was looking for answers on this and the Sun had “the smoking gun.”  The whole body of work was presented very well and represented a consistent effort on a day to day basis, with a strong impact on so many people. 

The Sun’s reporting provided the most in-depth analysis of issues surrounding Gray’s death and allegations against police. It also provided the most complete accounting of how peaceful protests turned violent, and how city officials and law enforcement failed to contain the unrest.  Through the records obtained under the public information law, reporters found that the city continued to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in settlements for lawsuits alleging brutality. This built on coverage that began in 2014, months before Gray died. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into the police department, expanding a review that began in response to the Sun investigation. Reporters also found through public records they obtained under the law that police officers routinely ignored pleas from detainees for medical treatment, and that Baltimore police had been urging officers to use seat belts for detainees transported in police vans for nearly three years.  Both issues were key to Gray’s death, and underpinned the criminal charges brought against six officers.

In examining the city’s riot response, The Sun was a leader in pushing for government transparency. With wide-ranging public records requests, reporters revealed how the city was unprepared, the behind-the-scenes communications and missteps among city officials.  The public’s interest was intense, and the community was demanding answers. So when the city responded to one public records request by disclosing more than 7,000 documents, more than a half-dozen reporters banded together to read them all —in one day. They produced an online story gallery that was updated in real-time, uploaded dozens of documents to The Sun’s website and wrote a front-page story.

The Baltimore Sun won the award in 2014 and in 2012 and joins previous award winners The Daily Times (2013), the Carroll County Times (2011), the Maryland Independent (2010) the Frederick News-Post (2008, 2009) and others.

Honorable Mentions

Cape Gazette
Nominated for series of reports on the suicide death of 7 year-old boy in Oak Orchard, Delaware.  “Bold attempt but unfortunately, few results.”  “Very interesting story which points out weaknesses in public information law [autopsy reports are not disclosable under Delaware FOIA law]. 

Montgomery Sentinel
Nominated for three-part series regarding a judge barring a Sentinel reporter from a court hearing featuring the parents of a special needs child and the Montgomery County Public School system.  “They achieved success, although a hollow victory.”  “Can’t give up if they say no.”  “Pushing back will achieve results.”  

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