Weiss Award winners share stories behind the stories

WHYY’s Chris Satullo, executive director of news and civic dialogue, hosts a panel discussion with the Weiss Award winners: David Gambacorta of the Philadelphia Daily News, Jeff Cole of FOX 29 and Isaiah Thompson of Philadelphia City Paper. (Photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University)

While American newsrooms are reeling back the resources they devote to investigative reporting, there are still journalists who are committed to uncovering the stories that can change our society and our lives.

The winners of the second annual Weiss Award for Investigative Journalism discussed the work that went into their stories and the spirit of those who devote their working days to uncovering injustice. The Weiss Award was established in 2012 through the vision and generosity of local businessman Larry Weiss. A weekend proofreader for the Philadelphia Inquirer in his 20s, Weiss saw the men and women who did investigative reporting as true heroes of their time.

The top prize of $10,000 went to Barbara Laker, David Gambacorta and Dana DiFilippo at the Philadelphia Daily News for “Bad Brass,” a series of stories that unearthed a string of troubling accusations against the Philadelphia Police Department’s leadership.

Two special recognition prizes of $2,500 also were awarded:

  • Isaiah Thompson, Philadelphia City Paper, “Cash Machine” — An investigation of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office revealed an asset forfeiture process that raises millions of dollars annually from cases that may never go to court.
  • Jeff Cole, Gary Scurka and Mark LaValla, FOX 29, “Used Mattresses” — Their reporting found problems in the way second-hand mattresses are cleaned, labeled and made safe from fire.

In a panel discussion with the winners during the April 18 award ceremony at WHYY, Gambacorta said he and his team were hyper-vigilant with each fact they wrote.

“There were long nights of running back and forth, making frantic cell phone calls trying to find documents” to support the claims of some of their sources, he said. But knowing the importance of their work, the Daily News team’s mantra was “keep going until you know you’re hitting a nerve.”

Larry Weiss welcomes guests to the second annual Weiss Awards for Investigative Journalism at WHYY. (Photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University)

Asked how the potential for accusations of libel impacted their work, Gambacorta said, “you have to be comfortable with your sources and you have to verify your stories. There are a lot of good stories that we didn’t run. We didn’t publish anything that we didn’t triple-check.”

The awards are presented by the Center for Public Interest Journalism, which is housed at Temple University’s School of Media and Communication.

“The Weiss Award fits perfectly with CPIJ’s mission, which is to address the national crisis in journalism through solutions carefully tailored to address local needs,” said SMC Interim Dean Thomas L. Jacobson. “Weiss’ support for this work is as visionary as it is generous, and is very much appreciated here at Temple.”