Wendi C. Thomas

Wendi C. Thomas, founding editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, is the winner of the prestigious 2020 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for a 2019 series that exposed Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare’s aggressive debt collection practices and led to reforms.

The award, announced Monday by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism, honors work in investigative journalism that leads to direct results. It comes with a $50,000 prize.

“At a time when rigorous, ethical, high-impact investigative journalism is more important than ever, USC Annenberg is honored to present this prestigious award,” said Willow Bay, Annenberg dean.

The MLK50 series, produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network and titled “Profiting from the Poor,” revealed that from 2014 through 2018, Methodist sued more than 8,300 people, including those with low incomes, for unpaid hospital bills. The nonprofit hospital system, the city’s largest and affiliated with the United Methodist Church, garnished hundreds of workers’ paychecks, including those of its own employees.

Within weeks after the investigation was published, Methodist began dropping lawsuits from court dockets, beefed up its financial assistance policies and made more people eligible for free or discounted care. The hospital also halted its practice of suing its own employees over healthcare debts and announced it would not file collection suits against any patients whose income is less than 250% of the federal poverty line, which includes more than half of Memphis residents.

Since July, Methodist has erased at least $11.9 million in debts. It also announced it would boost the wages of its lowest-paid workers to at least $15 an hour by 2021.

“The biggest oh-my-God moment was when we calculated how much debt had been erased: At least $11.9 million in debt owed by more than 5,300 defendants,” Thomas said. “In a city like Memphis, that’s major. It eliminated not only those financial and emotional burdens, but countless people will never be sued, won’t go hungry to pay Methodist, won’t take out payday loans to pay Methodist.

“I’m so excited, grateful and overwhelmed to receive this honor,” Thomas said. “I don’t think any journalist does this kind of work for an award, but it does feel good to get one.”

Thomas, who plans to reinvest much of the prize money back into MLK50, has spent more than two decades as a newspaper journalist, including as an assistant managing editor and columnist at The Commercial Appeal. She founded MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, an online publication, in 2017 to honor the work that Martin Luther King, Jr. had embarked upon before his assassination in Memphis.

“We wanted this to be the journalistic embodiment of his commitment to economic justice, centering the people Dr. King would have centered had he not been assassinated,” Thomas said.

She works with an “all-women-of-color leadership team” of a managing editor, a senior editor and a visuals director. The stories were published both on MLK50 and ProPublica, and parts appeared in other online, print and/or broadcast outlets, including NPR and the Guardian.

Professor Gordon Stables, director of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, said choosing the award winner was difficult. “This was a large and highly competitive field of 87 entries, including the year’s very best investigative journalism; the judges had a very challenging task.

“The award seeks to recognize journalism that makes a substantial impact in their communities, and so many of these submissions can be directly traced to changing conditions at the local and national level,” Stables said. “No matter how much journalism you consume, these award submissions reinforce that there is just so impactful journalism happening all across the country.”

The judges also recognized the work of two finalists:

Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois for “The Quiet Rooms,” an exhaustive investigation that showed in graphic and heart-wrenching detail how schools across Illinois violate the law by putting thousands of children with emotional and behavioral disabilities into tiny locked rooms for behavior as trivial as refusing to do classwork and throwing Legos. The project forced the state to issue an emergency order stopping timeouts behind locked doors and overhaul its policies for seclusion and restraint.

ProPublica for “The TurboTax Trap,” which unearthed internal documents and other records that revealed how one of America’s largest corporations used aggressive lobbying, misleading advertising and technological tricks to profit from millions of low-income people who were entitled to free tax preparation. The project forced the IRS to change its policies that were complicit with the industry, including a near 20-year-old prohibition against creating its own online filing system. It also sparked numerous investigations and lawsuits.

This year’s judging panel included: Lead judge Brian Rosenthal of The New York Times; Geeta Anand, director of the Investigative Reporting Program and Acting Professor of Reporting at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; Graciela Mochkofsky of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York; Shani Hilton of the Los Angeles Times; Jessica Garrison of BuzzFeed News; Ron Nixon of the Associated Press; and Ginger Thompson of ProPublica.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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