EUGENE, Ore.— The New York Times and Stanley Nelson, editor of The Concordia (La.) Sentinel, are recipients of the 2011 Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism.
The New York Times will receive the award for its handling of controversial material released by Julian Assange on the whistle-blowing WikiLeaks website in 2010, including classified government documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. The judges cited Executive Editor Bill Keller and The Times for the paper’s deliberate and thoughtful process in treating Assange as a source, rather than a partner; in maintaining their journalistic independence while consulting with the U.S. government before publishing sensitive information; and in explaining its process to the public.
“We cannot overestimate the political pressures from all sides,” the judges’ statement said. “In certain cases, lives were at stake. The Times took the time and resources to do a magnificent job with their investigation and reporting. It would have been very easy, considering what was already being published online at that time, to take shortcuts or limit the scope. They made thoughtful, carefully calculated, and line-by-line decisions on what they would print and why. To take people through those leaked documents—as well as through the paper’s process in dealing with them—was not only an amazing act of public service, but a fabulous service to journalists all over the United States. WikiLeaks is a harbinger of things to come, and The New York Times handled it well.”
Stanley Nelson, editor of the Concordia Sentinel, a weekly newspaper in Ferriday, La., will receive the Payne Award for his investigation into the murder of Frank Morris, a black Ferriday businessman, in 1964. The murder had been ignored by law enforcement for more than 40 years. The Sentinel investigated the murder as well as another cold case—both allegedly the work of the Ku Klux Klan—for three years, publishing nearly 200 stories. The final story named the alleged murderer and was ready for publication in December 2010. It was held until January 12, 2011, at the request of Justice Department officials while the FBI completed interviews in its own investigations, which were officially reopened as a result of Nelson’s work. A grand jury was convened in February.
The judges recognized “the huge social, economic and political pressures on a small town paper in the South to keep a racially motivated killing in the past. There was great personal risk—even death threats. There was no doubt a direct economic impact, both lost subscriptions and personal expense. This is as pure a definition of journalistic courage as one could craft in 2011. For Stanley Nelson to start down the tunnel and follow it for three years required a degree of ethical fortitude that is rare and should be celebrated.”
New York Times Photographer Damon Winter will receive a special citation for his work documenting the devastation and death in the aftermath of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake—a situation which NYT Lens co-editor David Dunlap described as one requiring journalists “to invent a code of ethics on the spot.” The staff of the student Yale Daily Newsalso earned a special citation for its coverage of a Yale student’s high-profile suicide in March of 2010.
“The value of journalism is determined by the degree to which the work informs communities large and small,” said Tim Gleason, Edwin L. Artzt Dean of the School of Journalism and Communication. “While it’s true that technology gives all of us a platform to publish, what really defines journalism are the standards by which ethical journalists inform the public—standards such as editorial autonomy, accountability, compassion and truth telling. This year’s Payne Award winners exemplify a passionate commitment to the journalist’s obligation to seek and report the truth.”
The Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism recognize journalists “who demonstrate an extraordinary commitment to ethical conduct, even when faced with economic, personal or political pressure.” The Award carries a $5,000 cash prize. Ancil Payne, a legend in Seattle broadcasting, established the Payne Awards at the School of Journalism and Communication in 1999 to reward performance that inspires public trust in the media. Payne, who died in October 2004, was former CEO of KING Broadcasting; under his leadership, the company developed a national reputation for its commitment to ethical journalism.
Judges for the 2011 Payne Awards were professor Tom Bivins, John L. Hulteng Chair of Media Ethics, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication; Peter Bhatia, editor, The Oregonian; David Boardman, executive editor, The Seattle Times; Joann Byrd, retired editorial page editor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Everette Dennis, Felix E. Larkin Distinguished Professor, Fordham University School of Business; Drex Heikes, editor, LA Weekly; Peggy Kuhr, dean, The University of Montana School of Journalism; Mark Zusman, editor, Willamette Week; and Tim Gleason, Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
The 2011 Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism will be presented at noon on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. A panel discussion among the winners will follow the awards ceremony. Later that day, author and journalist Jere Van Dyk will present the 2011 Ruhl Lecture, “Prisoner of the Taliban.” The events are free and open to the public. More information about the Payne Awards, including a list of past winners, is available at payneawards.uoregon.edu.