Two investigations from The Center for Investigative Reporting won first-place national awards today at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference in Chicago.

Techsploitation, which exposed the financial mistreatment of technology workers recruited to the U.S. from India, was honored in the technology category. Reporters Matt Smith and Jennifer Gollan, video producer Adithya Sambamurthy and Creative Director Michael I Schiller contributed to the project, which included several stories and a graphic novel. The series, which ran on and in the Guardian US, used meticulous reporting and personal stories from reluctant sources to expose a labor market thriving on coercion, some of it reminiscent of indentured servitude.

Results of the investigation were swift and decisive. Its findings were referenced in an immigration advocacy group’s letter to President Barack Obama urging greater consideration for highly skilled workers in his immigration reforms. Another influential advocate personally delivered the stories to the Department of Homeland Security and the White House. Within three weeks, some of the investigation’s most vexing problems were addressed in Obama’s executive order on immigration, including provisions making it easier for work visa holders to change jobs and for whistleblowers to seek protection from abusive employers.

In the digital explanatory category, the society recognized Toxic Trail, a project that followed the path of contaminants unearthed at Superfund sites, by CIR’s Matt Drange and Susanne Rust in partnership with the Guardian US interactive team. Drange and Rust spent nine months tracking waste from one treatment plant to the next, charting how sludge generated at one Silicon Valley site crisscrosses the United States. Their alarming finding: The trail of toxic waste bounces from treatment plant to treatment plant – in Oklahoma and Arizona, in small towns and near an Indian reservation – often creating more waste along the way, including cancer-causing dioxins. Some of it even finds its way back to Silicon Valley, where it originated decades ago.

The findings challenged conventional wisdom about the Superfund program and attracted much-needed attention. Congress launched an inquiry into whether the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to properly monitor Superfund sites. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., whose district includes several toxic sites, demanded answers from the EPA: “The carbon emissions associated with collecting, transporting, and treating hazardous waste from Superfund sites are deeply troubling.”

Earlier in the week, “A Brief History of the Modern Strawberry,” a web video created as part of a broader investigation into the use of pesticides on strawberries, received a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for use of video online from the Radio Television Digital News Association. A collaboration between CIR and KQED radio about Mexican drug cartels also was awarded a regional Murrow award for “Michoacán Migrants Take a Stand.” Reveal Producer Michael Montgomery reported the piece for The California Report, with KQED’s Ingrid Becker producing. Regional winners compete for the organization’s national awards, announced later in the spring.

Hired Guns, a collaboration with CNN looking into the widespread lack of training and oversight of armed security guards, was a finalist in broadcast media for the Hillman Prize, which will be awarded in New York in May. The top prize went to WTVF-TV in Tennessee for “Policing for Profit,” about police agencies that had become “more concerned with profiting from the illegal drug trade than stopping it.”


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