Wisconsin Watch took top awards in six categories in the Milwaukee Press Club’s 2021 Excellence in Journalism contest, along with silver and bronze honors in six other categories. The awards were announced Friday night at the annual Gridiron Awards Dinner held at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel.
Several of the winning entries were produced by students and student interns working for Wisconsin Watch. Others were produced in collaboration with reporting partners, including WPR, the Anchorage Daily News and The Badger Project.
Here are the winning entries:
Best investigative story or series
Flawed Forensics, a joint investigation by Wisconsin Watch and the Anchorage Daily News, documents the questionable diagnoses of a former University of Wisconsin child abuse pediatrician. The investigation found that at least 12 families and caregivers in Wisconsin and Alaska had been accused by Dr. Barbara Knox of child abuse — allegations that were later rejected by child welfare authorities, the courts, law enforcement or other doctors. The stories were reported by Wisconsin Watch’s Brenda Wintrode and Dee J. Hall along with Anchorage Daily News reporter Michelle Theriault Boots. Wisconsin Watch’s digital and multimedia director Coburn Dukehart and Anchorage Daily News photographer Emily Mesner produced photos.
Best explanatory story or series
Color of Money was produced by students in Hall’s Investigative Reporting class in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The series explored why wealth and income levels among white residents far exceed those of people of color in Wisconsin, where the disparities are among the worst in the nation. Contributing to the series were students Ben Baker, Molly Carmichael, Alexa Chatham, Sonya Chechik, Martha Daniels, Molly Davis, Harrison Frueck, Gretchen Gerlach, Alyssa Huglen, Kirien Sprecher, Gaby Vinick and Zhen Wang.
Best explanatory story or series (online)
As vandalism and violence mixed with peaceful protests in response to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd and other incidents, Wisconsin communities turned to a time-trusted tool in the name of protecting public safety: curfew enforcement. Reporters Jim Malewitz, Wisconsin Watch’s deputy managing editor, and Clara Neupert found this type of enforcement disproportionately targeted people of color in Milwaukee, subjecting peaceful protesters to hefty $691 fines.
Best public service story or series
This series explored the slow pace of lead water pipe replacement in Milwaukee and statewide — four years after the Flint, Michigan lead-in-water crisis. Reporter Diana Butsko found that it would take 70 years at the current rate to replace all of the lead service lines in Milwaukee, where thousands of children are lead poisoned each year. Madeline Fuerstenberg also reported on Eau Claire’s efforts to get the lead out. Fuerstenberg and Isaac Wasserman produced photos for the series.
Best public service story or series (online)
At a time when the public increasingly calls for accountability from the police, reporter Peter Cameron found a little-known loophole that allows fired Wisconsin law enforcement officers to leave behind their checkered pasts and join police departments elsewhere in the state. Cameron — reporting for The Badger Project and Wisconsin Watch — found 200 police or sheriff’s officers currently employed in Wisconsin had been fired from previous jobs in law enforcement, resigned in lieu of termination or quit before completion of an internal investigation.
Best pandemic story that appeared online
This entry documented the exceedingly high level of COVID-19 infections among Wisconsin people who are incarcerated. Reporter Vanessa Swales found the infection rate among imprisoned people was five times the rate of the general population. The story featured Calvin Johnson, who died of COVID-19 after unsuccessfully petitioning a judge for release, citing his myriad underlying health conditions that made him susceptible to serious complications. Also contributing reporting was Malewitz. Dukehart produced photos for the story.
Best coverage of a single news topic or event
Wisconsin Watch broke news in June by reporting on a new federal study showing that the No. 1 factor for acute gastrointestinal illness in Kewaunee County’s private drinking water wells is cow manure. The findings raise questions about the effectiveness of existing regulations aimed at protecting residents from tainted drinking water. The story was reported by Dukehart, who also produced photos for the story. Her father, Tad Dukehart, also produced images.
Best investigative story or series (online)
While on the trail of another story, reporter Phoebe Petrovic discovered that a Wisconsin judge was using a questionable sentencing scheme that required defendants to stay under his supervision for months — even years — after sentencing. Multiple legal experts told Wisconsin Watch and WPR that Outagamie County Circuit Judge Vince Biskupic’s use of “de facto” probation was, at best, a gray area of the law. Some said it was illegal. Justice Deferred was reported by Petrovic, Mario Koran, Jack Kelly and Fuerstenberg on behalf of Wisconsin Watch and WPR. Petrovic also produced an audio version of the story for WPR. The stories were produced through the NEW News Lab, a local news collaboration in Northeast Wisconsin.
Best hard feature story (online)
Malewitz reported on the discovery of ancient human remains at the proposed Kohler Co. golf course near Sheboygan. The discovery added to the growing concerns about the 18-hole championship course, which critics say would damage the fragile ecosystem along Lake Michigan. Hall provided additional reporting and photos.
Best photo essay or series
Isaac Wasserman’s photo essay explored life along Madison’s polluted Starkweather Creek, which in 2019 contained higher levels of hazardous PFAS than any other waters tested that year.
Best feature photograph
Wasserman won bronze for his portrait of a bartender contemplating leaving the service industry because of the pandemic.
Best long hard feature story
The scourge of depression and suicide among Wisconsin dairy farmers was the subject of this entry, which featured a Rio couple coping with the aftermath of their son’s decision to take his own life. Kelly, reporting for Wisconsin Watch, found rising concern for the mental well-being of dairy farmers in Wisconsin, who cope with numerous stressors. These include financial uncertainty caused by wildly fluctuating milk prices; severe weather ruining crops and buildings; and grueling working conditions with a lack of available employees to help lighten the load. Dukehart produced photos for the story.