Catalyst Award: ProPublica
No single act of journalism had a greater impact on politics and public policy in 2018 than ProPublica’s publishing seven minutes and 47 seconds of audio of 10 sobbing Central American children begging for their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The raw wailing and breathless, lingering, breaking sobs of “Mami, Papá, Papá, … no, Papá … Papá” that go unheeded—and mocked—by an immoveable Border Patrol immediately demanded human attention over the theatre of oblique policy debates.
As a result, within 48 hours of publication, the Trump administration retreated, halting its “zero tolerance” immigration policy practice of family separation—notwithstanding the fact that the policy had no measures to reunite the families the administration had separated, nor that more than 240 children still were removed from their families since the signing of the executive order reversing course. More than 100 of the over 2,000 separated children are under the age of 4.
Ginger Thompson, a senior reporter for ProPublica, has worked for 20 years on both sides of the border and earned the trust of valuable sources. In this case, a source recorded the audio, but wanted ProPublica to publish an edited version. Thompson convinced the source to allow the full, unedited version to be published for complete transparency and inoculation against charges of manipulation or “fake news.”
The publication of the audio set off rapid and rippling media coverage and public outrage. ProPublica pushed with its own reporting, mobilizing its entire newsroom and filing public records requests for police reports and call logs at more than 100 shelters for immigrant children worldwide. At the same time, ProPublica’s research, data, and engagement teams published a geo-sensitive, searchable map of all known shelters across the country.
Health and child development experts say that the separations will having lasting damage, perhaps even permanent. The Department of Health & Human Services has already said they cannot guarantee the children heard in the audio were ever reunited with their parents. ProPublica brought needed attention and understanding to the real human impact of policy in practice. For veering zero tolerance off course, for changing the conversation from one of indifferent policy to the question of our morality as a nation, and for making the Trump administration and the public answer to the cries of those children, Peabody recognizes ProPublica with the first-ever Catalyst Award.