- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

The Washington Times has won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for public service, one of investigative journalism’s highest honors, for its series entitled “Disposable Heroes” that disclosed the unethical treatment of war veterans during a Veterans Affairs medical experiment.

The newspaper’s 10-part series, led by reporter Audrey Hudson, began in June. It prompted letters of outrage from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and members of Congress, resulted in full-scale investigations by Congress and the Bush administration and hearings before the House Veterans Affairs committee, and ultimately produced an apology and sweeping changes inside the VA medical system.

The reporting included a gripping account of the plight of returning Iraq War veteran James Elliott, a post-traumatic stress disorder patient who engaged in a near lethal confrontation with police after suffering a psychotic episode. At the time, he had been treated by the VA with an anti-smoking drug known to cause such side effects.

View “Disposable Heroes” here

The series exposed significant ethical lapses inside the VA’s medical experiments involving informed consent of patients, monitoring of serious side-effects and other important safeguards. The agency also is investigating whether employees should be punished for the lapses.

“We are extremely honored by SPJ’s recognition of this project and believe it is a great reminder that original newspaper reporting remains an important staple of American life even in tough economic times,” said John Solomon, executive editor of The Times.

“We also know the biggest prize of all comes in knowing that that our war heroes and veterans enrolled in future medical experiments at the VA will face much better safeguards than those in place when Mr. Elliott suffered his unfortunate incident.”

The annual award, specifically among newspapers with a circulation of less than 100,000, is based on stringent criteria, including “evidence of courage and initiative in overcoming opposition” along with tangible results, according to the SPJ. This year, the award drew 900 entries in 53 categories.

“The Washington Times made a significant investment to take a watchdog role and ensure the government takes care of these brave men and women who are worthy of our deepest gratitude and highest respect,” Mrs. Hudson said.

“I am humbled and honored to be a part of this team investigation that has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists,” Mrs. Hudson said. “We are committed to standing up in our reporting for those who have no voice, which is the highest value of journalism, and a tradition at our paper.”

To expand the reach and impact of the project, The Times collaborated with ABC News and investigative correspondent Brian Ross to create a companion piece on “Good Morning America,” which aired on the same morning that the original investigative expose was published in the newspaper.

The Times also created original video and Web packages that made the information known to millions of viewers on the the Times newly redesigned Web site.

“This project was really groundbreaking inside our newsroom because it was our first effort at four-dimensional, interactive journalism — creating elements for print, TV, radio and the Web to reach the widest possible audience, ” Mr. Solomon said. “We very much appreciate Brian’s great work in ensuring the great audiences who watch ABC also were told this important story.”

The SPJ judges recognized Mrs. Hudson’s dogged reporting effort over several months as she recounted Mr. Elliott’s tragic experience, interviewed VA doctors, patients and administrators and forced into the public scrutiny internal VA documents that verified the lapses.

Mrs. Hudson also coordinated supporting information for the story from a half-dozen Times’ reporters.

Photographer Rod Lamkey shot a photo expose of Mr. Elliott that poignantly captured the despair of an Iraq war veteran who was let down by the agency that was supposed to treat his illness and who in his ownwords declared he felt like a “disposable hero.”

Christian Fuchs, the Times’ first multimedia editor, shot extensive video that brought readers inside the near fatal confrontation between Mr. Elliott and law enforcement officers during his psychotic episode and the struggles the veteran experienced in the days of his recovery.

In addition, multimedia editor Alex Wilson created an elaborate Flash interactive feature for the Times Web site that tied the entire project together for Web users and updated them on developments of the story over eight months.

The award will be presented to The Washington Times in August at Society’s annual meeting in Indianapolis.

• Jennifer Harper can be reached at jharper@washingtontimes.com.

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