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Florida Journalism Not Dead Yet
By Florence Snyder

When government doesn’t do its job, when children die in its care, when law enforcement commits wrongdoing, we look to investigative reporters to go beyond a spokesperson’s platitudes and tell us what’s really going on.
But with the bottom falling out of newspapers, Florida has lost much of its investigative muscle — those extra-curious reporters who keep a watchful eye on how things work.
So it’s worth celebrating the recognition given Florida journalism this week by Investigative Reporters and Editors, a prestigious national journalism organization. Because the enduring lesson that emerges from their work is this: Journalism matters.

First place for breaking news went to Palm Beach Post reporters Michael LaForgia, Cynthia Roldan, and Adam Playford for a story headlined, “Violent Felon Went Unnoticed.”
According to the judges, the reporters “raced the clock and the competition to unearth compelling details in the deaths of two children whose bodies were fished out of a South Florida canal.” Playford uncovered key court documents 30 minutes before the courthouse closed and, using his iPhone, snapped pictures of hundreds of pages of documents as clerks were shoving him out the door. “The records showed how officials should and could have done more to protect the children from the violent felon who was engaged to their mother.”

LaForgia also turned in a chilling and richly reported tale of how the Department of Juvenile Justice uses heavy doses of anti-psychotic drugs to chemically restrain children they are supposedly rehabilitating. The package, headlined “Drugging Delinquents,” helped Florida journalists sweep the print-online reporting category.

An equally impressive contender came from Gus Garcia-Roberts of Miami New Times, who exposed fraud, mismanagement and dangerous abuses in Florida’s $150-million-a-year John M. McKay Scholarships for Students With Disabilities Program. Garcia-Roberts found Florida’s Department of Education has almost no oversight over schools receiving McKay Scholarship funds. It’s “like a perverse science experiment, using disabled school kids as lab rats and funded by nine figures in taxpayer cash.”

But the top prize in the small newspaper category went to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for its report, “Unfit for Duty.” Reporter Anthony Cormier and editor Matt Doig analyzed more than 22,000 cases of police misconduct and found “a system flawed at every level, one where politics had trumped the safety of Florida’s citizens.” Thanks to Doig and Cormier, we now know that “nearly one in 20 active law enforcement officers had egregious cases of misconduct but still managed to keep their badges.”

In the Freedom of Information category, The Miami Herald was honored for its blood-curdling account of the torture inflicted upon twins Nubia and Victor Barahona for much of a decade while they were under the “care” of the Department of Children and Families.  Reporters Diana Moskovitz and David Ovalle joined veteran social services reporter Carol Marbin Miller in telling the story of how Florida failed the twins year after year, until at age 10, their chemical–soaked bodies — Nubia dead, Victor barely alive—were found by the side of the road in Palm Beach County.

Miller also led a seasoned Herald team that included Michael Sallah and Rob Barry on an epic investigation into Florida’s toothless regulation of assisted living facilities.  The series, aptly titled “Neglected to Death,” would surely have been a contender had it been eligible for consideration, which it was not because this year’s IRE President, Manny Garcia, editor of El Nuevo Herald, had a hand in editing the project.

On April 16, Columbia University will announce the winners of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.  The smart money is on Team Florida.

Florence Snyder is a Tallahassee-based corporate lawyer who has spent most of her career in and around newspapers. She can be reached at fsnyder@floridavoices.com