Capitol News Illinois, partners win national award for excellence in disability reporting

Capitol News Illinois, partners win national award for excellence in disability reporting

‘Culture of Cruelty’ investigation with ProPublica, Lee Enterprises honored for 2nd time


Capitol News Illinois and its reporting partners have been honored with a second national award for their investigative series into a culture of abuse and cover-ups at a state-run center for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

CNI reporters Beth Hundsdorfer and Molly Parker were honored with the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability for their “Culture of Cruelty” series investigating Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center and other state-run facilities. Parker, who is a fellow with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, won the award as an employee of Lee Enterprises Midwest. She has since joined CNI’s investigative reporting team.

The award was announced Wednesday and will be presented next month by the National Center on Disability and Journalism, which is part of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The “Culture of Cruelty” series took first place in the large newsroom category. The second-place award went to New York Times reporter Amanda Morris for her interactive piece on American Sign Language in the age of video technology and social media. Third place went to Christine Herman for her story examining barriers to mental health care for children and teens, published by Side Effects Public Media.

Hundsdorfer and Parker are slated to accept the award during a Nov. 9 ceremony in the First Amendment Forum at the Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix.

The pair began investigating Choate in 2022, eventually teaming up to pool the newsrooms’ resources. The investigation involved dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests, thousands of pages of documents, extensive interviews with sources, database building and other reporting efforts. Since September 2022, the outlets have published 15 stories regarding the management of Choate.

State officials cited the investigative findings in their announcement of a plan to relocate about half of the facility’s residents. Months later, the state replaced the facility’s manager among other leadership changes after the outlets published a follow-up report showing that abuse claims continued despite the efforts at reform.

It’s the second national award the outlets have won for the “Culture of Cruelty” series. In May, the outlets were named as winners of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights journalism award in the domestic print category.

“Beth and Molly are two of the most dedicated, hard-working and conscientious journalists in the state, and I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of such an award.,” Capitol News Illinois Editor-in-Chief Jerry Nowicki said. “This honor continues to show the importance of the painstaking work that they do.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that distributes coverage of state government to hundreds of newspapers and broadcast outlets daily. It launched in January 2019 and Hundsdorfer joined the reporting team in fall 2021. Parker joined the team in July. Lee Enterprises is one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains and ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that partners with local reporting outlets to fund investigative and longform journalism projects.

The Schneider award and the Gary Corcoran Student Prize for Excellence in Reporting on Disability are the only national professional and student journalism contests devoted exclusively to the coverage of people with disabilities and disability issues.

The 2023 NCDJ contests garnered almost 200 entries from around the globe, including from journalists in Brazil, Uganda and Pakistan.

“This work is an extraordinary testament to the growing global commitment to prioritize and improve coverage of people with disabilities,” said Pauline Arrillaga, executive director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism and executive editor of Carnegie-Knight News21, both housed at the Cronkite School.

Jerry Nowicki

Jerry NowickiJerry Nowicki

Jerry has more than five years of experience in and around state government and nearly 10 years of experience in news. He grew up in south suburban Evergreen Park and received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University and a master’s degree online from Purdue University.

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