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Three national contests honor Palm Beach Post’s heroin coverage

The Palm Beach Post’s 2016 reporting on the community’s heroin crisis was honored this month with three national awards, including recognition for the ethical struggle involved in publishing the faces and stories of those who died from the epidemic.

“The Palm Beach Post brought the issue home in stunning detail,” wrote the judges for the Association of Health Care Journalists, which awarded the paper first place for public health reporting for newspapers with circulation under 100,000. The judges called the stories “a tremendous public service.”

A team of Post reporters invested more than a year detailing addiction fraud and sober home abuses, documenting the cost of the epidemic and, in a Nov. 20 special section, telling the stories of every person felled by heroin-related overdoses in Palm Beach County in 2015.

Story after story appeared in print and online from January through December, spurring community action where there was once silence: U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel used Post exposés to prod HUD for national sober home guidelines, issued in November; U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio called The Post’s front page photos of victims “heartbreaking” and asked the U.S. comptroller general to assess the grand jury’s sober home findings; and Gov. Rick Scott received multiple requests that he declare a statewide health emergency.

And, as of April, nearly two dozen sober home operators have been arrested, including some first exposed by The Post.

The heroin coverage pushed The Post into a highly regarded, international field of six finalists for the University of Wisconsin’s Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. Among the finalists were The Guardian, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team and The Associated Press.

The contest honors news organizations that struggle to pursue the truth while adhering to high ethical standards. It is named for Shadid, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent killed in 2012 while crossing the Syrian border on assignment for The New York Times.

Mother Jones magazine reporter Shane Bauer won for wrestling with issues of journalistic deception when he spent four months undercover as a private-prison guard.

The Post was recognized for its decision to devote its Nov. 20 front page to the photos of every person in Palm Beach County who died from a heroin-related overdose in 2015. The choice pitted the respect for individual privacy against the need to lay bare an unacknowledged crisis.

The decision to publish was made after months of newsroom debate, the input of ethicists, counselors and people in recovery and interviews with families of those who had died.

The Post’s heroin and sober home coverage also was recognized as a finalist for the 2016 Investigative Reporters and Editors Awards, which honors both national and international investigative reporting.

The Post has been an IRE finalist seven times in the past seven years and a winner once, in 2011.

The Post’s sister publication, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, won the IRE medal for medium-sized newspapers for its national exposé of physicians who sexually assault patients, a story that also appeared in The Post. The Chicago Tribune took the medal for large newspapers.

Post staffers honored are reporters Joe Capozzi, Pat Beall, Lawrence Mower, Christine Stapleton, John Pacenti and Barbara Marshall; data reporter Mike Stucka and data interns Justin Price and Spe Chen; researcher Melanie Mena; investigations editors Holly Baltz and Joel Engelhardt; digital audience editor Robin Webb; and designers and photographers Becca Vaughan, Mark Buzek, Joe Forzano and Thomas Cordy. Pacenti and Mena also contributed to AJC’s award-winning doctor-sex series.

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