The Michael Kelly Award

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Determined to chronicle the everyday realities inside a private prison, Shane Bauer spent four months as a $9-an-hour corrections officer at a medium security prison in Louisiana after applying for the job using his own name and work history. His resulting article depicted a facility barely able to function under the cost-cutting pressures from the nation’s second largest prison company. Bauer’s article showed readers how insufficient staffing increased danger for guards and prisoners alike and how he struggled to maintain his humanity in a setting where physical and emotional assault was all too commonplace. Bauer’s article had immediate impact: after its publication, the Department of Justice announced it would end its use of private prisons..

With grit and grace, New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin wrote about the struggle of women in Afghanistan for dignity, equality, and respect. Intrigued by a report of an Afghan woman set afire after being accused of burning a Quran, Rubin disclosed how the woman was falsely charged and how the Afghan judicial system ineptly handled the case. She revealed how efforts to integrate women into the Afghan police force were backfiring, telling the story of a young mother who was murdered for becoming a policewoman. Rubin reported the articles at considerable personal risk, sometimes sleeping in her clothes so she could flee at a moment’s notice. That she undertook the assignments just months after being severely injured in a helicopter crash in Iraq speaks to Rubin’s commitment to bear witness.

Reported at great personal risk during three extended trips into Syria, “The Jihad Next Door” is the definitive account of the terrifying rise of jihadists in Syria. Winning unprecedented access to senior members of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, as well as ISIS fighters, Rania Abouzeid discloses how al-Qaeda gained a foothold in Syria and ISIS used the Syrian conflict as an incubator to hatch its regional ambitions. “It’s a mammoth understatement to say that this was a hard task, especially for a freelancer,” Rania Abouzeid wrote in a letter accompanying the entry. “I work undercover and alone in Syria. I do my own fixing, translating, logistics and security… I am just a girl with a notepad and pen who has to figure out everything on my own.”

As the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press, Rukmini Callimachi consistently displayed a passion for the truth, reportorial ingenuity, and a commitment to the highest standards of journalism. At great risk to her own safety, Callimachi discovered a large trove of internal documents from al-Qaida that illuminated the internal workings of the terrorist organization and its strategy for the region. Reporting from Mali—again at great personal risk–she tracked down the bodies of six victims shot by the military, forcing the Malian government to initiate an investigation.

A former infantryman in Iraq, Brian Mockenhaupt wanted to write about what happens when someone in the military has to assume his dead boss’s job, and those under him have to adjust to new leadership during the most stressful time of their lives. It’s a situation unfathomable to most of the civilian world, but one the military takes for granted. Mockenhaupt’s reporting stretched over 18 months, taking him from a platoon in Afghanistan that went on daily—and deadly—foot patrols in Afghanistan to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Marines from the platoon struggled to reintegrate into the world they had left behind.

In “The Invisible Army,” Sarah Stillman tells the story of ten Fijian beauticians who were recruited for lucrative jobs in a posh Dubai salon, only to end up in Iraq giving manicures and massages to U.S. soldiers. “Through their mistreatment, Stillman exposes the larger scandal of thousands of foreign workers on U.S. military bases reduced to something like indentured servitude,” said the Kelly Award judges in a statement. “Working as a freelance reporter without a contract, Stillman spent more than a year reporting the story, traveling to four countries, six military bases, and two war zones.”

In their four-part series, “Agents’ Secrets,” Mandy Locke and Joseph Neff exposed widespread misconduct at the State Bureau of Investigation in North Carolina. Agents fabricated stories to prove prosecutors’ theories. Lab examiners flouted scientific techniques and withheld evidence to help build cases for prosecutors. As a result of the series, top officials at the bureau have been replaced and the SBI is rewriting its procedures. The series was an example of the News & Observer’s exemplary criminal-justice reporting over the past several years—reporting that helped free a death row inmate and trigger the establishment of the nation’s first Innocence Inquiry Commission.

In a riveting five-part series in The New York Times, David Rohde described how he and two Afghan colleagues were kidnapped by the Taliban outside Kabul and held for seven months before he and one of his colleagues escaped on foot to a Pakistani military base. Rohde was initially reluctant to write about his experience, telling his editors, “I don’t want to make myself look like a hero. I am not a hero.” But he bravely used his captivity to illuminate for readers the world and minds of terrorists who repeatedly threatened to behead him and to provide insights into what Rohde termed a “Taliban mini-state” in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Courage can take many forms. There’s physical courage-the willingness of journalists to put themselves in harm’s way to keep the public informed. There’s also moral courage-the commitment to truth that will alienate readers, risk advertising accounts, and jeopardize a newspaper’s standing during already precarious times. Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry of The Seattle Times displayed such courage in their four-part series “Victory and Ruins,” which exposed a community’s blind embrace of a Rose Bowl-winning University of Washington football team that coddled two dozen players who were arrested while at the university for charges including rape, robbery, and assault. Armstrong and Perry showed how it wasn’t only the athletic department and university administrators who looked the other way but also local police, prosecutors, judges, and influential alumni. As Seattle Times investigations editor James Neff wrote: “Few things ignite as much passion as football. And we knew we were lighting a fuse.”

Loretta Tofani had been a foreign correspondent in China in the 1990s, but it was not until she left journalism and started an import business that she got a first-hand look at the working conditions in Chinese factories making products headed for the United States. She saw workers using carcinogens without masks or ventilation equipment and workers losing limbs in old machinery lacking safety guards. Tofani closed her business and began reporting the story. She sent inquiries to several newspapers, but they all turned her down. Undaunted, she kept reporting, traveling to China five times to interview workers, obtain medical records, and dodge state security officials trying to harass her. In the end, she found a home for her work in The Salt Lake Tribune. Her four-part series is a tribute to her persistence, resourcefulness, and moral courage.

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