“THIS STORY DIDN'T MAKE US ANY MONEY and it didn’t make us any friends,” said Josh Salman, one of the finalists of the 2017 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting for his reporting on racial bias in sentencing in Florida. 

Those words could be the unofficial motto of the kind of work Salman and his peers do: the countless hours spent cleaning databases, poring over documents, wresting information from unwilling officials, or cultivating sources.

When done right, the months of hard work pay off.

Last week, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) celebrated the best of the country’s investigative journalism with its annual Goldsmith Awards Program. Launched in 1991 by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at HKS, the Goldsmith Awards have become one of the country’s premier journalism awards, honoring not only investigative reporting, but also recognizing groundbreaking books and saluting journalists for a lifetime of dedicated work (this year, it was Univision's Jorge Ramos). 

At a time when news outlets face dwindling revenues, technical revolutions and even institutional assaults, the awards play an important role in celebrating journalism’s contribution to democracy and civic life.

The overall winner, a piece by Shane Bauer of Mother Jones on the four months he spent working as a private prison guard, resulted in the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security reconsidering the use of private prisons. Another finalist, David Cloud’s Los Angeles Times piece on attempts by the California National Guard to aggressively recover millions of dollars in enlistment bonuses from thousands of soldiers and veterans, led the Department of Defense to suspend the program and Congress to waive most of the debts. 

“I read over 100 of the submissions that brought to light the worst failings of humanity,” said Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center and a lecturer in public policy at HKS, introducing the winner in the JFK Jr. Forum on Thursday night (March 2).

“The stories were so intense I had to stop reading them at night. They just chilled me to the bone. But ultimately what gave me great hope was all of the journalists out there doing this work, digging, toiling away in obscurity, looking into issues of great local, national, and global significance, holding power accountable. This is inspiring – the work that journalists do.”

“An occasion with this kind of cachet, at Harvard, recognizing your work – that’s an honor, and that inspires you to keep going,” said Sam Roe of The Chicago Tribune. His team’s two-year investigation into prescription drug interactions led to major reforms at the country’s pharmacies and a new method for discovering fatal drug combinations. 

The Wall Street Journal’s reporting into trouble at a much-hyped blood testing laboratory startup and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's investigation into doctors sexually abusing their patients were also honored.

The Goldsmith winner receives a $25,000 prize. The five other finalists receive $10,000 each. The journalists honored embody the focus on impact and public policy that spurred the Greenfield Foundation to create the awards program, said Mike Greenfield, one of the judges for the investigative prize award.

The program also includes a career award for excellence in journalism, which was awarded this year to Ramos, an anchorman for Univision. Past recipients have included Gwen Ifill, Seymour Hersh and Walter Isaacson.

The Goldsmith Book Prize for best academic book was awarded to James Hamilton’s Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism, and the prize for best trade book went to David Greenberg for Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.

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