MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and ProPublica’s “Profiting from the Poor” series is a winner of the 2019 Investigative Reporters & Editors Awards, which recognizes the best in watchdog journalism, the organization announced Monday.
The series, which exposed the aggressive debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and led to reforms, is sharing the Print/Online Division I award category with ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine for “He’s a Liar, a Con Artist and a Snitch. His Testimony Could Soon Send a Man to His Death.”
“While the judges were impressed with all of the entries, they were unable to name just one winner in the Print/Online Division I category. We felt that both pieces were important and strong,” contest judge Ron Nixon said. “Both investigations saved lives in different ways.”
“Profiting from the Poor,” written by MLK50 founder Wendi C. Thomas and produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, 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.
Since the series was published in June, Methodist has erased at least $11.9 million in healthcare debts. Within weeks after the investigation was published, the hospital system began dropping lawsuits from court dockets, improved financial assistance policies, halted its practice of suing its own employees over healthcare debts and promised it would boost the wages of its lowest-paid workers.
The IRE Award winners were selected from more than 450 entries. The contest, held since 1979, covers 17 categories across media platforms and a range of market sizes.
Winning stories ranged from investigations that proved Russian jets bombed Syrian hospitals to the uncovering of sexual abuse of children.
“This year’s entries were powerful examples of investigations that held institutions and people accountable,” said Jennifer LaFleur, an IRE board member and chair of the IRE Awards contest committee. “Many of the investigations also made use of innovative techniques, enabling them to do stories that could never be done before.”
To gather data for the “Profiting from the Poor” series, a team of researchers combed thousands of lawsuits and court payment records through the court’s online database.
In addition to Thomas, also named in the award are MLK50 managing editor Deborah Douglas and visuals director Andrea Morales; Maya Miller, Beena Raghavendran, Doris Burke, Lylla Younes, Rebecca Davis, Ray Green, Jordon Douglas, Martha Park, Jordan Parker, Autumn Ragland, Marise Tuttle, Naomi Van Tol, Brad Vest and Lindsey Wagner.
Thomas and “Profiting from the Poor” have earned several awards and recognitions, including the prestigious 2020 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting presented by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism; first place, Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism in the business category, presented by the Association of Health Care Journalists; finalist for the 2019 Scripps Howard Awards.
Also, today the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy announced MLK50 is one of 16 news organizations that will receive part of $2.3 million in grants for organizations that serve communities of color.
The fund’s donors include the Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, the Google News Initiative, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and the American Journalism Project, which is also a funder of MLK50.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, 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 Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, 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.