Like many patients in similar circumstances, Maneisha Gaston was confused to learn that Froedtert Hospital filed liens against her and her son to recover the cost of treating their car crash injuries. She initially worried the liens applied to the home she proudly purchased three years ago on Milwaukee’s North Side. Instead, the legal filing would reduce compensation she might receive from a crash-related lawsuit — if one is filed. Gaston is seen here outside her home on Dec. 21, 2020. This image was part of the Costly Care series that has won a Regional Edward R. Murrow award. Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Watch
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Wisconsin Watch and WPR’s Bram Sable-Smith have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for two series related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Radio Television Digital News Association announced Thursday. The contest recognizes outstanding achievements in broadcast and digital journalism. Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow who is embedded in the Wisconsin Watch newsroom.

Sable-Smith was honored for Best Investigative Reporting in the large market radio category in Region Four  — which covers Wisconsin, North and South Dakota and Minnesota — for Costly Care, an audio series that exposed the practice of hospitals suing patients for past-due bills during the pandemic. Online versions of those stories also were published on WisconsinWatch.org.

WPR’s COVID-19 obituary series, which profiled Wisconsin residents who had died from the pandemic, also won top honors for Best News Series. Among the installments was Sable-Smith’s audio story, Duane Bark — beloved educator and football coach who painted daughter’s nails, dies of COVID-19 at 61, which was also published by Wisconsin Watch. 

Both series will be considered for national Edward R. Murrow Awards.

After its airing and publication, the Costly Care audio and online series prompted several hospital chains to halt aggressive debt collection efforts against former patients. Sable-Smith had the happy job of notifying Blanche Jordan of Milwaukee that a lawsuit over her alleged $7,150 hospital debt was now history. “Shut the front door!” the ecstatic nursing assistant exclaimed when she heard the news.

“I don’t even know how to feel right now,” Jordan told him. “My heart is racing. I’m shaking right now, because these doctors bills have literally taken over my whole life.”

The Murrow Awards are the embodiment of the values, principles and standards set forth by Edward R. Murrow, a journalism pioneer who set the standards for the highest quality of broadcast journalism.

“We’re pleased that the Murrow Awards recognized the impact of Bram’s reporting, and we appreciate all of the Wisconsinites who shared their stories with us. I’ve deeply enjoyed working with such a thoughtful, mission-driven reporter and storyteller,” Wisconsin Watch Investigations Editor Jim Malewitz said.    

Thursday’s honors mark the second time that Wisconsin Watch and WPR have shared in an Edward R. Murrow regional award. Wisconsin Watch and WPR also were honored for the 2017 video documentary, “Los Lecheros (Dairy Farmers),” which chronicled the fate of immigrant workers on Wisconsin dairy farms at a time when then-President Donald Trump was calling for mass deportations. Mike Simonson reporting fellow Alexandra Hall shared that honor with filmmakers Jim Cricchi and Susan Peters of Twelve Letter Films.

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The byline "Wisconsin Watch" represents members of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism's editorial and public engagement and marketing staff.