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Tender and tenacious journalism

Must See Mondays brings journalists to a virtual roundtable to discuss tragedies, triumphs in disability reporting

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November 03, 2020

Disability reporters must be tenacious.

Their stories, in-depth and data driven, can take months to report and their beat can take years to fully understand.

But the effort is worth it, according to four award-winning national disability reporters who spoke at an ASU virtual event on Nov. 2.

Because it forces change for the better.

That's why the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ), which is headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, invited four winners of the 2020 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability to discuss their work and impactful storytelling in an informative and exciting virtual event, part of the Cronkite School's Must See Mondays series.

The award was established in 2013 with the support of Katherine Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who has been blind since birth. The reporting contest is administered by the NCDJ at the Cronkite School.

“We had incredible entries for this year’s Katherine Schneider awards from media outlets around the world, on as many disability-related subjects as you can imagine. This is the only contest specifically designed to recognize exceptional coverage of journalism about disability, and the judges had a tough job this time, with more than 100 entries to consider,” said Amy Silverman, an award-winning Phoenix-based journalist and author, and a member of the NCDJ advisory board who has taught at ASU’s Cronkite School.

“The winners are truly remarkable, and the first place projects demonstrate a commitment both to gathering data and telling individual stories that show how much hard work we face as a society, even on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Silverman moderated a live Zoom event on Monday titled “The Best in Disability Reporting,” which included Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune, Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis of ProPublica Illinois, and Shelly Conlon of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Smith Richards, Cohen and Chavis placed first in the large media market category for “The Quiet Rooms,” an in-depth investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune. The project investigated the practice of isolating school children, many of whom have disabilities. The trio examined records from more than 100 school districts across Illinois and determined that while seclusion sometimes met the legal definition of the law, in many instances it was stretched or abused and children were cruelly punished.

“It turns out that this was an issue that had no real state oversight and lots and lots of schools were using them,” said Smith Richards, a veteran education reporter whose work has touched on everything from sexual abuse in schools to police accountability to school choice. “A lot of people who work in schools really don’t even know about these practices at all, but they have a really interesting history on seclusion and isolation that migrated from the psychiatric facilities.”

Smith Richards said her reporting team came across several names for the types of rooms where students with disabilities were isolated – Common Room, Reflection Room, Blue Room. They discovered that some of the rooms had padding while others had restraints.

“There are lots of names for them but the purpose is the same,” Smith Richards said. “That is to remove the student from contact with anybody else.”

Chavis said in addition to collecting “tens of thousands of pages” of data and information from school districts, they built their own documents and spreadsheets. These detailed incidents including the testimony of students, schools, staff members’ names and the disciplinary measures they took. Some disabled and nondisabled students were sent to seclusion for the smallest of infractions – including throwing a pencil in class.

“We felt it was very important to understand the type of distress they were going through while being placed in seclusion or being restrained,” Chavis said. “One of the most surprising things to me was the amount of distress the students were under while locked down inside of one of these rooms.”

Cohen said the day after the story published, the Illinois governor and the state board of education announced an immediate ban on locked seclusion and limited the use of floor restraints. The state also required school districts to submit to them three years’ worth of records about past use of seclusion and restraint.

“The key to this (story) was not to be traumatizing to anyone in the course of our reporting,” said Cohen, whose work has led to several higher education and police reforms in Chicago. “We always met with them (parents and students) on their own terms … we wanted to capture the children as complete children.”

Conlon, an award-winning journalist and education watchdog, penned a seven part series in 2019 called “Ignored: South Dakota is failing deaf children,” which won a first place Schneider award in the small media market category. The project explored how South Dakota’s education system failed to meet the needs of children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“No matter what these families did, they kept hitting brick wall after brick wall, and their services at that time were being diminished,” Conlon said. “Their resources were being outsourced and it fell on the shoulders of the school district to be able to handle what was needed for these children to get a quality education. But they didn’t have the money and they didn’t have the training.”

Conlon said her quest to find answers took longer than usual because of South Dakota’s limited open records laws. That protection stretched from school district employees to government officials, and even to the police.

“We can’t even get the basic police report here,” Conlon said. “I had to rely heavily on parents who kept their child’s academic data … I also had to reach out to lawyers and support specialists tied to nonprofits to get a really full picture of what was happening because whenever I went to the school district, they would only tell me so much, cite privacy laws or would reject me completely.”

Conlon’s pursuit ultimately paid off. Days after the series was published, the superintendent for South Dakota’s School for the Deaf and School for the Blind and Visually Impaired announced her retirement. The board of regents also set up an advisory board to make the school more accountable and more focused on students' needs.

Smith Richards said she, Cohen and Chavis went through many emotions on their journey, even crying to each other at times. She said a helpful piece of advice from an editor continually resonated with her and helped get them through the rough spots.

“Stay angry,” she said. “Don’t let the information overwhelm (you). Stay angry so you can focus on that very important point.” 

Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability

First Place: Lakeidra Chavis is a reporter for The Trace in Chicago, where most of her work focuses on the city's gun violence prevention efforts. Prior to The Trace, she reported for ProPublica Illinois and Chicago Public Media (WBEZ), where she reported an in-depth piece on how Chicago’s Black communities have been impacted by the opioid crisis.

First Place: Jennifer Smith Richards has been a reporter at the Chicago Tribune since 2015. Smith Richards has a specialty in data analysis and previously covered schools and education for more than a decade at newspapers in Huntington, West Virginia; Utica, New York; Savannah, Georgia; and Columbus, Ohio. Her work has touched on everything from sexual abuse in schools to police accountability to school choice.

First Place: Jodi S. Cohen is a reporter for ProPublica Illinois, where she has revealed misconduct in a psychiatric research study at the University of Illinois at Chicago, exposed a college financial aid scam and uncovered flaws in the Chicago Police Department’s disciplinary system. Previously, Cohen worked at the Chicago Tribune for 14 years, where she covered higher education and helped expose a secret admissions system at the University of Illinois, among other investigations.

First Place: Shelly Conlon is an award-winning journalist who has covered education for more than seven years between Texas and South Dakota. She was also named an investigative reporting finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Fort Worth chapter’s 14th annual First Amendment Awards in 2016 for uncovering how top-level officials knew of academic wrongdoings and administrative bullying months before seniors graduated without earning course credit properly. Currently, she is a watchdog education reporter for the largest paper in South Dakota, the Argus Leader. 

Second Place: Janine Zeitlin is an enterprise reporter for the USA Today Network-Florida, The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, BBC and elsewhere. She is the recipient of 50-plus journalism awards for public service, diverse coverage, investigative reporting, feature writing and community leadership.

Second Place: Mike Elsen-Rooney is an education reporter covering New York City public schools, the nation's largest school system, for the New York Daily News. Before that, he was a fellow for two years at Columbia Journalism School's Teacher Project, where he did deep-dive reporting on educational inequities across the country, and an intern at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, education-focused newsroom. Elsen-Rooney is a former high school Spanish teacher and afterschool program coordinator.

Third Place: Ed Williams has worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Latin America for digital, print and radio media outlets since 2005. He spent seven years in public radio before joining Searchlight New Mexico as an investigative reporter, covering foster care, education and other issues. His work has won numerous national awards, including the 2019 Frank Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting. Williams was a 2016 USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellow, and he earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010.

Third Place: Joseph Shapiro is a correspondent on NPR’s Investigations team. Among his wide areas of coverage, he has reported on disability issues for more than three decades. Shapiro is the author of "No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement." His 2018 series “Abused and Betrayed”, on the epidemic of sexual assault of people with intellectual disabilities, won the Ruderman Award from the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University. 

Honorable Mention: Naaz Modan is an associate editor for Education Dive, a B2B publication for education leaders. She covers education policy, curriculum, school safety, equity issues and, most recently, the pandemic's impact on K–12. Prior to joining Education Dive, she freelanced for media outlets including CNN and Bustle, and has worked as the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the executive editor of

Honorable Mention: Michael Schulson is a contributing editor at Undark Magazine, where he writes about the intersections of science, politics and culture. His recent work for Undark has included features on nursing-home reform, bias in psychology research and vaccination mandates. In 2020, he won an award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for his reporting on COVID-19, and, in 2017, he was a finalist for a Mirror Award at the Newhouse School. Schulson's reporting for Undark has been republished by NPR, Scientific American, Wired and many other outlets. 

Top photo: Winners of the 2020 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability. Clockwise from top left: Naaz Modan, Mike Elsen-Rooney, Lakeidra Chavis, Jennifer Smith Richards, Ed Williams, Shelly Conlon, Michael Schulson, Joseph Shapiro, Jodi S. Cohen and Janine Zeitlin. Courtesy of The National Center on Disability and Journalism at ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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