Do you know the difference between “the media” and journalism? Many people do not.

Pardon me for a soapbox moment here but this is important. Real journalism is what powers our democracy and helps to hold the powerful accountable. I couldn’t stop thinking about this as I attended last weekend’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Denver. So I want to tell you about this incredible community of mission-driven, passionate, honorable professionals.

Award-winning investigations

Investigative Reporters & Editors award winners

Here are some of the projects that received this year’s Investigative Reporters & Editors awards, announced in April and honored at its conference last weekend. The full listing is at IRE.org/awards.

The Secret IRS Files,” ProPublica.   

Judges’ comments: This investigation made a once-in-a-lifetime leak of tax returns accessible through meticulous reporting and plain language and graphics. The reporters exposed the creative ways the world’s richest people amass unparalleled wealth while paying virtually no taxes. The historic effort revealed gross absurdities and inequities of the tax system, prompting a global conversation about possible reforms.

Poisoned,” Tampa Bay Times with the support of PBS Frontline.

Judges’ comments: “Poisoned” was an extraordinary and incredibly focused investigation (of a smelter that exposed hundreds to lead and other toxic chemicals). The data was difficult to acquire and piece together, making this investigation a step above the rest. (This also received a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.)

Wires and Fires,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/USA Today Network.

Judges’ comments: This project exposed a scourge in the poorest areas of Milwaukee: No one was investigating who was to blame for deadly fires that were caused by hazardous wiring. The project explored how powerful business interests, particularly landlords and developers, had weakened laws that would have better protected tenants from dying in fires at rental properties.

Death Sentence,” The Indianapolis Star.

Judges’ comments: The Star’s work in “Death Sentence” shines a glaring light on what’s happening behind bars in Indiana’s jails. The fact that the team took on the task of counting deaths and piecing together an entire system, which hadn’t been done before, allows the work to stand out. The investigation also goes beyond accountability by examining solutions and offering information to the public, allowing people to find out what’s happening in jails in their communities.

The Hidden Tab,” Spotlight PA & The Caucus.

Judges’ comments: “Hidden Tab” demonstrated the true cost of government! Spotlight PA and The Caucus executed a multilayered FOIA strategy to develop something that hadn’t been done before, and ultimately revealed the myriad of ways in which state legislators spend millions of tax dollars in questionable ways. The team’s work included bipartisan reaction and a powerful solutions aspect in the form of what the legislature could do to be more transparent in the future, which could also lead to change. The team’s exhaustive process and method in which they leveraged FOIA fundamentally “opened government” and that’s a true example of what this type of reporting should look like.

More

More than 1,400 of the best journalists gather each year at this conference and share trade secrets with the very people they compete against for “scoops” and exclusive interviews the rest of the year.

Mostly, they are here to learn new ways to protect you and me from corruption and unchecked power by government and big business, disinformation and extremist zealots.

Many even take their own precious vacation days, pay for airfare and hotel, plus a few hundred dollars of registration fees to attend a work conference. Does that happen in your industry?

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“The media is the enemy of the people,” you may have heard. Nothing could be further from the truth at this conference. To give you a flavor of the discussions, here are some of the session topics:

∙ Misinformation: How do you know what to believe?
∙ Investigating threats against poll workers and election officials
∙ Investigating the new organized crime
∙ Investigating judges and the courts
∙ Tracking dark money in the midterm elections
∙ Coping with trauma as a journalist

That last one is more critical than ever. Journalists must bear witness to the most heinous, brutal events in life to record for the rest of us what happened and how it can be prevented next time. That’s traumatic. So is being attacked for serving the calling of their profession, which happens with alarming frequency in 2022 thanks to a constant drumbeat of lies and derision toward them as nothing more than “fake news.” (Even health care workers face angry patients spewing lies nowadays, so I know journalists are not alone in this alternate reality.)

Journalism matters. And it matters more to the people here this week and the rest of the IRE community more than most of the American people know.

It’s a cruel irony that this group of incredible storytellers needs someone to tell their story. I feel grateful to have spent a few days learning from them and continue to be honored to work in a field that continues to help our society be the best it can be.

I just wish more people appreciated the work these amazing people do.

This is excerpted from the free, weekly Voices for a Free Press newsletter. Sign up to receive it at the Save the Free Press website here.