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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

A Small Web Siteís Big Win   

A reporterís hunch leads to a national ethics award. Thu., September 27, 2012.

By Gabby Siskind
Gabby Siskind (gsiskind3@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

In true journalist fashion, Karen Gadbois, cofounder and staff writer at The Lens in New Orleans, listened to her gut. Her hunch that a murder victim had a criminal record led to a story, one that ultimately earned her the Society of Professional Journalists' annual Ethics in Journalism Award.

Henry "Mike" Ainsworth was killed in January while trying to prevent a carjacking. Despite Ainsworth's heroic efforts, Gadbois believed there was something missing from the story.

The New Orleans Police Department has a history of revealing crime victims' criminal records, a practice widely criticized by many in the community. Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas has consistently released arrest records because he said he felt it showed the community that much of the violence in the city involves people with similar backgrounds. Yet in this case, the police did not mention a record.

And there was a difference in this case: while much of New Orleans' crime is black on black, Ainsworth was white.

"I felt like this is curious that this victim's criminal record hadn't been given out," Gadbois says.

So she began digging. She soon discovered that this Good Samaritan did have a criminal record involving drug possession and distribution. Gadbois discussed the police department's inconsistency with her editor, and the potential backlash The Lens faced if it wrote about it.

"We knew if we were to write this story about this guy who had been a hero, we would be dragging his name through the mud to some degree," says Steve Beatty, The Lens' managing editor. "Karen was hesitant to do so, especially since she is not a criminal justice reporter, and this is not her usual area."

However, both felt it was an important to tell the community about the police department's conflicting practices. "We talked for about 20 minutes about the large serving of crap we were going to get for this story, but decided the hypocrisy of the police department was too strong to pass up," Beatty says.

The NOPD did eventually release the victim's criminal record, but not until The Lens published Gadbois' story.

The community continued to express its outrage over the police department's practices; many felt the policy had racial overtones. As a result of this outcry and Gadbois' article, the NOPD decided to make a change.

In a press release dated February 1, Serpas wrote, "After consulting privately with local clergy leaders over the last weeks, starting today, our press releases will no longer include the individual public arrest record of a homicide victim," he wrote.

While the article in The Lens highlighted the department's inconsistency, some residents were unhappy that the news outlet publicized Ainsowrth's record, a situation made evident by comments on the news outlet's Web site, Gadbois says.

"We listen to our comment section and take it seriously, but there were many other people who quietly reached out to me and thanked me," she adds.

Gadbois was grateful her editor encouraged her to write the story and expose this larger issue of social injustice, she says. Receiving the ethics award from the Society of Professional Journalists was just a bonus.

"Karen is very strong and a real community watchdog," Beatty says. "She really cares about New Orleans."

Another staff writer, Jessica Williams, who Beatty says looks up to and admires Gadbois' work, nominated her for the award. "Jessica manages the award," Gadbois says. "I don't pay much attention to that; that's her thing." The journalist didn't know she had been nominated until she learned that she was a finalist.

The Ethics in Journalism Award is designed to honor individual journalists or news organizations that demonstrate ethical practices, SPJ's Web site says. "It also honors especially notable efforts to educate the public on principles embodied in the code or hold journalists ethically accountable for their behavior," the site says.

Kevin Smith, chairman of SPJ's ethics committee, who makes recommendations as to who should receive the award, says Gadbois' work met all of the requirements. "The award essentially recognizes those who have stepped forward and exhibited ethical practices often in the face of difficult times or repercussions," he says. "They show courage."

SPJ's executive committee clearly agreed; it designated Gadbois the winner.

And the honor was extremely gratifying for The Lens. "For those at a little Web site," Beatty says, "the odds were stacked against us, but we knew she had done some ethically challenging work."

Gadbois and cofounder Ariella Cohen launched The Lens in November 2009 as "New Orleans area's first non-profit, nonpartisan public interest newsroom," according to the Web site. The site features investigative reporting as well as daily stories aimed to "educate, engage and empower readers with information and analysis necessary for them to advocate for a more transparent and just governance that is accountable to the public."

Says Gadbois, "It was a difficult story to write and I'm proud that The Lens was recognized."