- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Washington Times was named Monday as a winner of the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award for public service, one of investigative journalism's highest honors, for its series titled “Disposable Heroes” that disclosed the unethical treatment of 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 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. It 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 a smoking-cessation drug known to cause such side effects.

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 some of its 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 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 Times won the annual award among newspapers with a circulation of less than 100,000; a similar award for newspapers with circulations over 100,000 went to the staff of the Columbus Dispatch. The awards are based on stringent criteria, including “evidence of courage and initiative in overcoming opposition” along with tangible results, according to SPJ. This year, 900 entries in 53 categories were submitted.

“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.”

The award won plaudits Monday from the House member who oversees the Veterans Affairs Department.

“We cannot do our oversight job without the kind of investigative journalism exemplified by Audrey Hudson's reporting,” said Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. “Many Americans assume that our country is taking adequate care of our veterans - but we're not, and we depend on the media to expose the truth and build support for change.”

The nonprofit veterans foundation that first alerted the Times to Mr. Elliott’s case applauded the award as well. Eilhys England Hackworth, chairperson of Soldiers For The Truth Foundation (SFTT), said she was gratified to see Mr. Elliott’s case get such the recognition it deserved, calling Mr. Filner’s work in correcting the problems inside the VA as “an extraordinarily refreshing display of congressional oversight at its best, and one appropriate to the Times’ robust efforts to reintroduce accountability journalism to Washington.”

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.

“Audrey took a tough subject and through dogged reporting and time-consuming field work revealed the shameful treatment of fellow citizens who served their country and deserved a lot better. It was an honor for me and ABC News to be able to work with her on one aspect of the series,” Mr. Ross said. “Audrey's work served as an important wake-up call for [Veterans Affairs] and future generations of veterans will benefit from her reporting.”

The Times also created original video and Web packages that made the information known to millions of viewers on 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 reporting efforts 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 reporters at The Times.

Photographer Rod Lamkey Jr. 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 own words declared that 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 Mr. Elliott 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 together the entire project for Web users and reported developments over eight months.

The award will be presented to The Times and other winners in August at the society's annual meeting in Indianapolis.

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