Coverage of Israel/Hamas and Russia/Ukraine Wars Earns Five of 14 Awards in 75th Anniversary of Prized Honors for Revelatory Reporting
NEW YORK (February 19, 2024) – Five recipients of the 2023 George Polk Awards, announced today by Long Island University, were for coverage of the Israel/Gaza and Russia/Ukraine wars in a year when the university is marking the 75th anniversary of one of American journalism’s prized honors.
Revelatory reporting on the business practices of Elon Musk, the questionable ethics of U. S, Supreme Court justices and an insidious approach to dealing with relatives of individuals killed by police are among 14 awards in 13 categories. Two of the other winners exposed dangerously faulty medical devices while others unearthed a lucrative trade in temporary license plates from phony car dealerships, laid bare Colorado’s dysfunctional family courts and uncovered the illegal arrest and detention of hundreds of children in rural Tennessee.
The Sydney Schanberg Prize in long-form journalism goes to a veteran conflict reporter who embedded himself with rival gang lords to examine the total breakdown of civic life in Haiti.
The George Polk Awards were established in 1949 by LIU to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war. The awards, which place a premium on investigative and enterprising reporting that gains attention and achieves results, are conferred annually to honor special achievement in journalism. The latest winners were selected from 497 submissions of work that appeared in print, online or on television or radio, nominated by news organizations and individuals or recommended by a national panel of advisors.
To celebrate the 75th anniversary, the university is inviting all previous recipients, thought to number about 600, to join this year’s winners at a luncheon sponsored by CBS in Manhattan April 12. At the same time, sixteen outstanding journalists whose careers reflect a commitment to deep investigative reporting will be honored as “George Polk laureates.” The luncheon at Cipriani 42nd Street will be followed by an evening symposium, "Journalism in an Age of Disinformation, Digital Media and AI," at the Times Center on West 41st Street.
“Given the significance of this year’s program we sensed a special imperative to honor work in the tradition of George Polk,” said John Darnton, curator of the awards, “and as horrific as the outbreak of war in the Middle East and the ongoing fighting in Ukraine were, they provided us with no shortage of magnificent reporting, done at great peril, from which to choose.”
The award for Foreign Reporting goes to the staff of The New York Times for unsurpassed coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas. Times reporters used firsthand accounts to demonstrate how brutal and well planned the Hamas attack was and how vulnerable and ill prepared Israel had been to defend itself despite access to a 40-page Hamas battle plan. Then, relying on reports from longtime stringers in Gaza as well as imagery developed by its visual investigations team, the paper documented the unprecedented extent of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and its impact on civilians.
Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, Alex Mierjeski, Brett Murphy and the staff of ProPublica have won the National Reporting award for revealing secret, lavish and highly questionable gifts that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received for decades from wealthy benefactors. The team also documented the court’s lack of any meaningful approach to policing ethical transgressions like those seemingly committed by Justice Thomas and by fellow Justice Samuel Alito, who accepted a free Alaskan fishing trip from a hedge fund magnate and failed to recuse himself from a case involving his patron.
Jesse Coburn of Streetsblog NYC has won the Local Reporting award for “Ghost Tags: Inside New York City’s Black Market for Temporary License Plates," the product of a seven-month investigation that uncovered an extensive underground economy in fraudulent paper license plates that motorists used to evade detection while driving on suspended licenses, dodging tolls and tickets and committing other more serious crimes.
The State Reporting award goes to Chris Osher and Julia Cardi of The Gazette of Colorado Springs for exposing the heartbreaking consequences of a family court system that relied on the advice of unqualified and incompetent parental evaluators to return young children to abusive fathers, leading to four deaths in a two-month period. Their reporting has led to changes in state law curbing the use of such discredited theories as “parental alienation” in determining custody and has prompted an ongoing criminal investigation by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
The staff of Reuters has won the Business Reporting award for penetrating reports on nefarious practices at companies owned by multi-billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. The reporters documented a spate of injuries and the death of a worker at SpaceX and poor treatment of laboratory animals at Neuralink, Musk’s brain-implant company. Other stories found that Musk’s electric automaker Tesla hid dangerous defects in steering and suspension parts, rigged in-dash driving-range estimates in its cars, invaded drivers’ privacy by sharing sensitive images recorded by their vehicles and made insurance customers wait months for claim payouts.
The award for Medical Reporting is shared by two entries that exposed the Food & Drug Administration’s failure to properly regulate faulty medical devices, leading to dire consequences. Anna Werner of CBS News and the KFF Health News team of Brett Kelman, Fred Schulte, Holly K. Hacker and Daniel Chang have won for “When Medical Devices Malfunction,“ which reported on the failure of FDA-approved knee implants; hip implant failures that led to emergency surgery; faulty heart pumps; the recall of insulin pumps three years after an FDA official hailed them as technology that would “give patients greater freedom to live their lives,” and (literally) jaw-dropping dental devices that totally escaped the agency’s attention. It is Werner’s second Polk award. She was cited 23 years ago at KHOU-TV in Houston for a series leading Firestone to recall 6 million defective tires.
Michael D. Sallah, Michael Korsh and Evan Robinson-Johnson of the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette and Debbie Cenziper of ProPublica have been honored for “With Every Breath,” a series exposing the scope of a corporate cover-up that allowed Philips Respironics to continue marketing breathing machines around the globe years after the FDA received warnings about contaminants in the machines and the company’s own experts concluded that the devices posed severe health risks to users.
The award for Justice Reporting goes to Brian Howey, a freelance reporter whose exposé on a tawdry police practice was published by the Los Angeles Times and developed into a segment of a podcast by Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting. Howey, who began the project as a graduate student in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, found that California police were engaged in a deceptive ruse, which is espoused by a private company that trains police officers. When an individual died at the hands of police, the investigators would interview the next of kin without telling them that their relative was dead until the end of the interview. Police agencies later used the negative information about the deceased they had gleaned from families to protect themselves from lawsuits.
Luke Mogelson of the New Yorker has won the Magazine Reporting award for “Two Weeks at the Front in Ukraine.” Circumventing Ukraine’s reluctance to allow reporters on the frontlines, Mogelson embedded with a brigade in the Donbas. His gripping account found Russian artillery strikes terrifyingly chaotic but showed that hardened Ukrainians “had so internalized the soundscape of the war that they knew instinctively where each munition was coming from and where it would land.” This is Mogelson’s third honor in four years. He won a 2020 Polk Award for “American Uprising,” firsthand accounts of domestic upheaval that turned violent, and he received the first Sydney Schanberg Prize for coverage of the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
The award for Photojournalism goes to Samar Abu Elouf and Yousef Masoud of The New York Times for chronicling Israel’s bombardment and invasion of their homeland, Gaza. The two photographed the conflict from its opening hours on Oct. 7 until they escaped the territory exactly two months later. Under harrowing circumstances, they captured gripping and unforgettable images. Of frightened children looking skyward toward an Israeli plane. Of bodies pulled from the rubble of flattened buildings. Of a little boy touching the bloodied face of his dead baby sister. And of the chaos of hospitals overwhelmed by dazed, gravely injured patients.
Meribah Knight of WPLN Nashville, Ken Armstrong of ProPublica and Daniel Guillemette of Serial Productions, The New York Times, have won the award for a four-part Podcast, “The Kids of Rutherford County,” which chronicled the shockingly misguided approach to juvenile discipline by a domineering judge in one Tennessee county. For over a decade, the judge ordered and oversaw a system in which hundreds – likely thousands – of children were arrested and detained in violation of state law. Faced with widespread backlash following the reporting, the judge announced her retirement.
The award for Television Reporting goes to VICE News correspondent Julia Steers and producer Amel Guettatfi for “Inside Wagner,” compelling on-the-ground coverage of Russian mercenaries on the Ukraine front and in the Central African Republic. After attempting to interview a witness to Wagner’s human rights abuses in the CAR, Ms. Steers and her crew were seized and held for several hours. Released, they remained for several more weeks before leaving the country.
Masha Gessen has been honored for Commentary for the New Yorker essay “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” a deeply personal and highly nuanced examination of how Germany and other European nations equate opposition to Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. Gessen, whose own family was victimized in the Holocaust and later fled Soviet anti-Semitism, drew on the writings of Hannah Arendt and, like Arendt, was accused of anti-Semitism after the essay’s publication.
The 2023 Sydney Schanberg Prize goes to Jason Motlagh of Rolling Stone for “This Will End in Blood and Ashes,” a vivid account of the virtually complete collapse of order in Haiti. Eschewing danger in the tradition of George Polk and Sydney Schanberg, Motlagh embedded himself with rival ganglords and also spent time with those caught in the crossfire to paint a devastating picture of a nation on America’s doorstep that had disintegrated into gang rule. The prize was established by the journalist Jane Freiman Schanberg to honor long-form investigative or enterprise journalism embodying qualities reflected in her late husband’s legendary career. It comes with a $25,000 award funded by Freiman Schanberg, who stipulated that it honor “highly distinguished, deep coverage of armed conflicts; local, state or federal government corruption; military injustice; war crimes, genocide or sedition; or authoritarian government abuses” of at least 5,000 words “that results from staying with a story, sometimes at great risk or sacrifice.”
The 16 George Polk career laureates, who were previously announced, are photojournalist Lynsey Addario, television correspondent Christiane Amanpour, editor Martin Baron, editor Dean Baquet, reporter Carl Bernstein, reporter Alma Guillermoprieto, author Laurie Garrett, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, reporter Seymour Hersh, documentarian Laura Poitras, editor David Remnick, citizen journalist Wilbert Rideau, editor Gene Roberts, reporter James B. Steele, editor Paul Steiger and reporter Bob Woodward.
John Darnton, Polk Awards Curator, 917-306-8046, John.Darnton@gmail.com
Ralph Engelman, Polk Awards Faculty Coordinator, 718-757-9294, Ralph.Engelman@gmail.com
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Long Island University, founded in 1926, continues to redefine higher education, providing high quality academic instruction by world-class faculty. Recognized by Forbes for its emphasis on experiential learning and by the Brookings Institution for its “value added” to student outcomes, LIU has a network of over 285,000 alumni, including industry leaders and entrepreneurs around the globe. Visit liu.edu for more information.