Observer honored for housing series

Paper's reporting led to multiple investigations, Staff Reports, Feb. 19, 2008

The Charlotte Observer has won a George Polk Award for its yearlong series on the area's high rate of housing foreclosures and the questionable sales practices by Beazer Homes USA, one of the nation's largest homebuilders.

The Observer's reporting led to FBI, IRS, SEC and HUD investigations of Beazer Homes, which has since stopped making mortgage loans nationwide and stopped building homes in Charlotte.

Read the series Sold A Nightmare

The series prompted new laws to protect homeowners and caused local officials to examine the damage to newly built neighborhoods devastated by foreclosures. The stories also led the N.C. Real Estate Commission to investigate Realty Place, one of Charlotte's largest real estate agencies.

Long Island University, which administers the Polk awards, announced that the Observer is one of 14 winners in the national competition, considered one of journalism's top honors. The Observer last won a Polk award in 1987 for coverage of the PTL ministry scandal.

"We're so very proud of our staff for its work on this series," said Observer Editor Rick Thames. "These journalists were among the first in the nation to foresee the looming foreclosure crisis. And no news organization, to my knowledge, has more definitively reported both the causes and the impact of this crisis, especially at the local level."

Reporters on the Observer series included Binyamin Appelbaum, Liz Chandler, Mike Drummond, Lisa Hammersly, Stella M. Hopkins, Pam Kelley and Peter St. Onge. Database editor Ted Mellnik and news graphics editor Wm. Pitzer provided maps and graphics. The project editors were Gary Schwab and Patrick Scott.

Leila Fadel, Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy, which owns the Observer, also won a Polk Award for "first-hand accounts of violence and murder among Iraq's own people."

Other winners included author John McPhee (career award) and Chauncey W. Bailey Jr. (local reporting, posthumously), the editor of California's Oakland Post who was gunned down while investigating a local business.

The awards are named for correspondent George Polk, who was slain covering the civil war in Greece in 1948.

Also, the Observer was a finalist for the American Society of Newspaper Editors award for local accountability reporting. That award was won by the Washington Post's investigation into the widespread problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Polk Award winners

Career award: New Yorker magazine veteran and author John McPhee.

Television reporting: Senior foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto, producer Angus Hines and cameraman/producer Tom Murphy of "ABC World News with Charles Gibson," government crackdowns on protestors in Myanmar.

Political reporting: Washington Post reporters Barton D. Gellman and Jo Becker, on Vice President Dick Cheney's role as the hidden architect of U.S. policies on torture, military tribunals and other controversial issues.

Foreign reporting: Leila Fadel, Baghdad bureau chief for The McClatchy Co., for accounts of violence and murder among Iraq's own people.

Environmental reporting: Shai Oster of The Wall Street Journal on environmental consequences of China's construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

Medical reporting: Charles A. Duhigg of The New York Times, on unethical practices by nursing homes, long-term care insurers and allied businesses and investors that put the elderly at risk.

Legal reporting: Talking Points Memo's editor and publisher Joshua M. Marshall, for uncovering politically motivated dismissals of U.S. attorneys.

Consumer reporting: The Chicago Tribune, for accounts of children suffering injury and death from exposure to unregulated products imported from China.

Book award: Jeremy Scahill, for "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," which exposed killings, human rights violations and misconduct by an N.C.-based company that has become one of the world's premiere providers of private military services.

Magazine reporting: Freelance writer Joshua A. Kors, for articles published in The Nation magazine, exposing the U.S. Army's attempt to deny benefits to thousands of Iraq veterans.

Financial reporting: Edward Chancellor, for the Institutional Investor magazine article "Ponzi Nation" that warned that excessive risk-taking and interconnected investments - fueled by subprime mortgages and the activities of lightly regulated hedge funds - could cause calamity for world economies.

Business reporting: The staff of the Charlotte Observer, for a series that exposed the causes of the community's high rate of housing foreclosures.

State reporting: Jerry W. Mitchell of Jackson, Miss.'s Clarion-Ledger, for uncovering how disease outbreaks and an alarming increase in infant mortality rates went unreported by the Mississippi State Department of Health

Local reporting (posthumously): Chauncey W. Bailey Jr., the editor of California's Oakland Post who was gunned down while in the midst of investigating a local business, which has been linked to kidnapping.

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