OAKLAND — Three journalists investigating the killing of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey were named finalists for the 2008 Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism awarded by Northwestern University.
Bay Area News Group-East Bay investigative reporter Thomas Peele, retired journalist Mary Fricker and Bob Butler, perhaps best known for his work on KCBS radio, were honored for their work in the wake of Bailey's 2007 killing, exploring the circumstances of the killing and the police investigation that ensued.
The medal is awarded to "the individual or team of journalists, working for a U.S.-based media outlet, who best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories," according to Suzanne Hagen of Northwestern University.
"I think each one of them exhibited those traits," said Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. "Certainly they felt a great sense of personal morality and obligation in pursuing a story where a fellow journalist had been murdered. There were times when we discussed potential physical dangers and risks, though those reporters always continued working on the stories."
The winner of the 2008 medal was (Cleveland) Plain Dealer newspaper reporter Joanna Connors, whose series, "Beyond Rape: A Survivor's Journey," explored the story of her 1984 attack and rape in an effort to regain control over a traumatic event.
"It was very courageous, what she did, and it's thrilling to be in that company," Fricker said. "But I do think it needs to be said that the bravery here was from all of the Chauncey Bailey reporters, not just the three of us who happened to be on the stories we submitted for the award. Especially reporters who worked early on, covering what happened when Chauncey was murdered; nobody knew what had happened or where this would lead next, but they did groundbreaking work. I think it's important their work be included in this."
Chauncey Bailey Project reporters worked to investigate the people they suspected were responsible for Bailey's killing, even as it began to appear he'd been killed for just such an investigation.
"I don't think they realized the amount of attention killing Chauncey was going to bring on to them," Butler said. "My hope was they would say to themselves, 'Look at what happened when we did this once. What if we do it again?' and they would leave us alone as a result."
Despite holding this hope, Butler said he still felt frightened when approaching certain interviews and sources.
"No question, we knew there was a potential danger there, and that was why we took special precautions," Butler said. "We did one interview with an elaborate system with one of our team members to let them know we were OK. One person was supposed to call us a few minutes after we went in there, and if we said one thing, they'd know we were OK, and if we said another it meant they were going to do us harm."
Tribune Editor Martin G. Reynolds said the project is a collaboration of many individuals and organizations and would not have been possible without the expertise and support from many corners of the journalistic, philanthropic and academic communities. Reynolds sees the Bailey Project as a new model for ensuring good investigative journalism going forward.
Reynolds credited a host of reporters and editors with contributing to the project, including New America Media executive director Sandy Close, who first helped spearhead the project.
"Mary, Bob, Tom, and the many reporters and editors who worked on this project ignored the very real threat to their own safety and pursued this story with determination," Reynolds said. "They put fear on hold because a colleague was slain. On behalf of the Oakland Tribune, Bay Area News Group-East Bay and the Bailey Project, we thank the judges and are honored to sit in the company of such a prestigious group of courageous journalists."
The Chauncey Bailey Project partners and supporters include: the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, which includes the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times; KTVU-Channel 2; New America Media; the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education; the National Association of Black Journalists; IRE; San Francisco State University's Journalism Department; the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley; the California Endowment; George Washington Williams Fellowship; John S. And James L. Knight Foundation; the Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Chapter; and SDX Foundation.