Sun ground rent series wins top award

March 28, 2007|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Investigative Reporters and Editors, an organization dedicated to supporting investigative journalism, has awarded one of its top honors to The Sun's examination of antiquated ground rent laws, which enabled landowners to seize hundreds of homes from people who had fallen behind on payments.

IRE, based at the Missouri School of Journalism, gave The Sun's series one of four certificates it awarded to newspapers for work done in 2006. The judges said in their citation: "When a family of Vietnamese immigrants lost their home over a small unpaid debt related to obscure, colonial-era law, reporters at The Sun began to investigate. Soon, they uncovered lawyers and ruthless landlords who were systematically acquiring so-called `ground rent' rights and using small debts to force hundreds of people out of their homes all over their city."

Last week in Annapolis, lawmakers passed legislation to reform the system, and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed a bill barring the creation of new ground rents.

Since its publication in December, The Sun's series, On Shaky Ground, written by Fred Schulte and June Arney, "has rippled through the Baltimore area," editor Timothy A. Franklin wrote yesterday in a memo to the staff. "It exposed an unfair system that targeted the poor and underprivileged. It illustrated the human cost with compelling storytelling."

In an interview, Franklin said the series was "classic public-service journalism," the kind that "has an impact and makes a difference in the community." He said the stories, which took months of research and interviews, highlighted a "little-known problem that primarily affected the most vulnerable in our society."

In its citation, IRE said The Sun's stories "undoubtedly" saved the homes of many Baltimore residents.

Another Sun reporter, Robert Little, was one of four finalists in the same category, for his series Dangerous Remedy, about an experimental drug used on U.S. troops in Iraq. Last month, the series earned Little a George Polk Award from Long Island University.

In addition, Julie Bykowicz, who has been covering crime at The Sun for six years, was a finalist for IRE's Tom Renner Award for 10 crime stories she covered last year, several of them focused on the effect of criminal behavior on children.

IRE, which was founded in 1975, honored what it called "the most outstanding watchdog journalism of the year." The contest covers 15 categories across media platforms and a range of market sizes. The Sun won for newspapers with circulations from 250,000 to 500,000. IRE's contest received 501 entries this year.

Top honors, the IRE Medals, went to: Lawrence Wright for the book The Looming Tower, which "brings new light and understanding to the genesis of Islamic terrorism and the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks"; Oriana Zill de Granados, Julia Reynolds and George Sanchez of the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, for Nuestra Familia, Our Family, a television documentary about Latino gangs in California; and Ken Ward Jr., of The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, for "an unparalleled portrait of the dangers inside mines and the breakdowns of regulation that made 2006 a deadly year" in the coal-mining industry.

The IRE Awards will be presented June 9 in Phoenix, at the organization's annual conference.

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