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Investigative reporter accepts award, urges coverage of disabilities

November 27, 2013

Ryan Gabrielson, a reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch, expressed concern over the scarcity of disability coverage as he accepted the inaugural Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability Monday.

The award, administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University, recognizes the best disability reporting in all mediums – radio, television, print and online. Gabrielson received a trophy and a $5,000 prize on behalf of his news organization for “Broken Shield,” a series of reports detailing routine failure on the part of police to protect the developmentally disabled at California care institutions.

After accepting the award, Gabrielson spoke about investigative reporting and coverage of the disabled community as part of a Monday evening lecture series at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He said stories about the disabled are often under-covered in the media because reporters don’t recognize them or don’t know how to go about reporting them.

Stories about the disabled “are like shuttered big box store buildings to reporters,” Gabrielson said. “They’re monoliths – ugly, windowless, featureless. Their doors appear barricaded.”

“Broken Shield” was chosen from among 72 entries submitted by journalists around the world.

Schneider, who was in attendance for the awards ceremony and Gabrielson’s lecture that followed, said the response to the first contest was incredible, and she called Gabrielson’s work “just great journalism.”

Gabrielson said the story came to him as a tip in April 2011 about financial fraud within a small, obscure Californian police force, called the Office of Protective Services. What at first appeared to be a “quick-turn investigation” spiraled into an exhaustive probe over two years and uncovered a system that ignored patient abuse and even deaths.

“The developmental police story covered every condition of my beat – cops who don’t arrest criminals, courts that hardly ever see a patient abuse prosecution and catastrophes,” Gabrielson said.

Since the investigation was published, state lawmakers have begun to address the problems with a series of bills to begin “reforming the situation,” he added.

Gabrielson said working on the series opened his eyes to disability coverage. “Until you’re aware of the disabled and what they go through, you don’t see them,” he said.  

“Broken Shield” also was a 2013 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service and won a 2012 George Polk Award and a 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. 

Second-place in the Schneider Journalism Award contest and a $1,500 prize went to Gareth Cook for his New York Times Magazine piece, “The Autism Advantage.” Two honorable mentions, each with $500 awards, went to Daphnee Denis and Hoda Emam for a video documentary, “Playing by Ear,” and Broughton Coburn for a Dartmouth Alumni Magazine article, titled “Second Chapter: A Portrait of Barry Corbet.”

The awards are funded by Schneider, an author and a retired clinical psychologist who has been blind since birth. She also supports the Schneider Family Book Awards, which honors books that embody artistic expression of the disability experience for adolescent audiences.

“She is a kind, tough as nails woman, who gets disability on the most personal gut-level,” said contest judge Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair of Journalism at the Cronkite School and a member of the NCDJ board.

Entries for the 2013-2014 contest will be accepted beginning in May 2014.