Twice this week when national journalism awards were announced, the judges recognized The News & Observer and its reporters for their coverage of secrecy surrounding death in law enforcement custody.
Two journalism organizations honored the N&O for its reporting on John Neville’s death in the Forsyth County jail and a secrecy measure that passed the state legislature in the middle of the night.
For their work, News & Observer reporters Danielle Battaglia, Dan Kane and Lucille Sherman won second place in the National Headliner Awards’ category of public service in newspapers not in the top 20 media markets.
The award notes that the work being honored included reporting done in collaboration with the North Carolina Watchdog Reporting Network. Investigative reporters from seven newsrooms teamed up in 2020 to start the watchdog network.
In a special citation as part of the News Leaders Association’s First Amendment Award, the association recognized three news organizations, including The N&O, that “stood out for their work in shining a light inside detention facilities where men had died in custody in their states. In each instance, the news outlets fought for public records, illuminated the circumstances around the deaths and brought about change.”
The organization named ProPublica as the top winner of the First Amendment Award, USA Today as a finalist and Florida Today and KXAN as the other two recipients of the special citation.
Last year, The News & Observer revealed that legislators had voted to block records of death investigations from becoming public, as part of a largely technical bill that had passed the legislature with little discussion or opposition. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 168 after news coverage and protests.
Also last year, The N&O and other news organizations reported on Neville’s death, which had happened in December 2019 after Forsyth County sheriff’s deputies held him against the floor of the jail as he repeatedly told them he couldn’t breathe.
In an effort led by N&O Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin, the newspaper petitioned a court to release video from the jail. Other media outlets joined The N&O, and a judge made the video public over objections from prosecutors.
Prosecutors, who charged five former deputies and a nurse with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death, also went to court to block the release of death investigation records to The N&O. That court fight continues.
The News & Observer’s parent company, McClatchy, recognized the newspaper’s coverage of Neville and SB 168 last month with one of its 2020 President’s Awards, which honor the best work of the year by journalists across the company.