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Baltimore Sun wins James S. Keat Freedom of Information Award 2016

The Baltimore Sun is the winner of MDDC’s 2016 James S. Keat Freedom of Information Award for its work using public records to reveal patterns of crime and police action.  Five very strong nominations were received for this award.

The award is named for Jim Keat, a retired editor and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, who was a long-time advocate for public information access. Keat was inducted into the MDDC Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2013 and is a former recipient of MDDC’s Distinguished Service Award.

The nominees were judged by a distinguished panel:  Tom Marquardt, retired editor and publisher of The Capital in Annapolis, Frank Quine, retired assistant dean of the University of Maryland Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, and Miranda Spivak, Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism, DePauw University and independent journalist for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. The judges said they were impressed by the Sun’s reporting which both covered important topics and delved deeply into public problems.  The quality of the reporting, graphics and illustration and packaging of the content raised The Sun’s work above all of the other entrants. They felt the Sun’s “effort was extraordinary” with a particular focus on crime and police.  “Every story was fabulous.”

Every Sunday, The Sun publishes a section called “Sun Investigates,” which contains two to three stories that use information obtained through public records requests. In its entry, The Sun detailed its ongoing commitment to mining public records to identify and write stories that hold leaders and public agencies to account.

In March, The Sun published “Shocking Force,” which used the first-ever data analysis of all Taser incidents in Maryland to reveal that police agencies across the state had predominantly used the devices against suspects who posed no immediate threat. It also found that in hundreds of cases over a three-year period, police didn’t follow widely accepted safety recommendations.

In the fall, The Sun published “Shoot to Kill,” a three-part series that relied on an analysis of shooting data obtained through public records requests in Baltimore and other large cities across the country. That analysis found that in Baltimore, one out of every three people struck by gunfire dies, ranking it as one of the most lethal of America’s largest cities. Baltimore shared that deadly distinction with Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.

The Sun’s efforts to obtain public records also helped shed light on two of the year’s most high-profile police-involved killings that occurred outside the city of Baltimore. One was the fatal shootings of two Harford County Sheriff’s deputies by a man, David Evans, who was also killed in the exchange of gunfire. Through interviews and public records obtained in Maryland and in several states, The Sun found that Evans was a person of interest in the shooting of his ex-wife 20 years ago and had eluded law enforcement since, even at one point being declared dead by a Pennsylvania probate judge.

The second high-profile shooting involving police was that of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Baltimore County woman who was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police following an hours-long standoff. While many media outlets had filed public records requests with the Baltimore County Police Department, which were stalled, The Sun was the only news organization to also file a request with the county State’s Attorney’s Office, which it obtained and used to produce a Sunday story that provided new insight into the controversial decision by police to end the standoff by breaking down her apartment door.

Public records also helped The Sun tell the story about how the Baltimore Police Department had been secretly flying a plane with cameras over the city to collect hours of surveillance footage as part of a pilot program that key people - including the mayor, City Council and police union - did not know about. Emails obtained through a public records request provided insight into the city’s thought process, and even how the company that possessed the technology encouraged the city to be open and forthcoming with the public about it.

The Baltimore Sun won the award in 2015, 2014 and 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 Mention

In addition to the Sun, the judges chose to extend a special honorable mention award to The Sentinel Newspapers, for their work in evaluating the water quality of Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. 

A dedicated staff of six people sent numerous FOIA requests, visited several Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission facilities, and interviewed dozens of scientists, key personnel and consumers. During the course of this six-month long investigation the staff combed through an estimated 300 pages of documents. The judges recognized this as a “big effort” for the “small and scrappy publication.”

The project had the potential for a “huge impact on readers.” In its entry, the Sentinel Newspapers said their small staff took on this project because no one else had and it was an issue they believed spoke to the very nature of what journalism should do in serving its community. 

Runner-ups

Baltimore Business Journal

Nominated for their role in filing a formal complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board over improper closure of Baltimore Development Corporation’s meetings to discuss a TIF (tax-increment financing) request by Sagamore Development.  The judges felt this leadership “is what this award and Jim Keat embodied.”  The Open Meetings Compliance Board found the complaint justified and, as a result, the BDC was required to publicly acknowledge it had violated the Open Meetings Act. BDC Board Chairman Arnold Williams said of the Open Meetings Compliance Board’s action: “In getting this opinion, we will make certain that we do as much as we can to be as transparent as we can.”  The judges were impressed by their leadership in “rallying the other news organizations together to file a complaint” and in “calling out public officials who are not playing by the rules.” 

Frederick News-Post

Nominated for analysis of municipalities’ efforts to post agendas online.  Reporters examined the government bodies on their beats and rated how well they made agendas available, listed clear topics and supplied supporting documents. The project caused ripples in the community, as government bodies objected to being highlighted this way. But a few of them immediately changed their practices.  The judges applauded the efforts of The Frederick News-Post to bring this often-overlooked issue to their readers, and felt the “whole package worked very well.”

The News Journal

Nominated for its efforts to uncover violations of the Coastal Zone Act, Delaware’s landmark environmental zoning law.  Through public records reporting, the News Journal staff found that the Delaware City Refinery had been violating the act for financial gain -- but never faced any repercussions, even though the state’s top law enforcement and environmental agencies were aware of the violation.  The judges felt the staff did an “admirable job with a complicated story.”  The reporting produced tangible results, as Delaware has since filed an enforcement action against the refinery and the head of DNREC was not asked back under another Democratic governor. The judges recognized the “importance of issue in community.” 

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