Benches sit empty in June 2020 outside the assisted living section of Universal Health Care of Lillington. At the time the Harnett County nursing home had experienced one of the state's largest outbreaks of coronavirus cases, with 75 confirmed cases in staff and residents, and seven resident deaths from related illness. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

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Carolina Public Press received 11 awards Friday at the North Carolina Press Association’s annual awards ceremony, including first place for the prestigious Henry L. Weathers Freedom of Information Award and first place in General Excellence. 

The Freedom of Information Award was given for pursuit of nursing home COVID-19 outbreak information.

“This represents the fourth consecutive year in which CPP has won first place in either Freedom of Information or investigative reporting, representing two types of investigative work in which we take great pride,” Managing Editor Frank Taylor said.

In addition to CPP’s own reporting from Lead Investigative Reporter Kate Martin and Taylor, CPP’s news staff worked with fellow members of the NC Watchdog Reporting Network to probe the state’s reluctance to release data on the pandemic’s effect at long-term care facilities. The Watchdog Reporting Network is a collaboration formed in 2020 by CPP, The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer, WBTV, WECT, WRAL and WUNC, to combine their efforts in response to the pandemic. 

Network members led a broader legal coalition of news organizations and advocacy groups that called for the state to release the nursing home data, which the state eventually agreed to do. 

Martin also won first place Friday in infographics for a table she created to display and frequently update the nursing home data, which the state now releases weekly. The overall work on nursing home outbreaks received second-place honors for public service.

The judges in the Freedom of Information category commented, “This collection of reports from Carolina Public Press goes a long way toward explaining to the readers in simple language, minus any PR spin, what is known and not known about what’s happening in long-term care facilities. The successes these reporters achieved shines a light on specific areas of concern revealed through public records requests.”

“I’m incredibly proud of our team and their tireless work in 2020 to fight for information that matters for every North Carolinian,” said Executive Director Angie Newsome.

CPP contributing reporter Neil Cotiaux took second place in business writing for a series of articles on concerns from mountain residents and state officials over ongoing problems with HCA’s management of Mission Health in 2020 following the 2019 acquisition of the Asheville-based hospital chain.

CPP contributing reporter Imari Scarbrough received second place in news feature writing for her article on Anson County’s economic struggles due to a Wal-Mart closing just as the pandemic hit. 

Death certificates from North Carolina residents who died in March and April 2020 show many who died from symptoms similar to those who died from illnesses related to COVID-19, but without any record of them having been tested for the virus. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

Taylor won second place in photo illustrations for an image he created using the actual death certificates of residents of several mountain counties, while safeguarding their personal identifying information. The image accompanied a Watchdog Network story on what these documents showed about those who died during the first weeks of the pandemic.

CPP also received an overall second place for its appearance and design and second place for General Excellence of Website..

CPP Report for America Fellow Jordan Wilkie won third place in general reporting for his series of articles covering lawsuits over the North Carolina prison system’s handling of COVID-19. Wilkie’s coverage has continued since the articles entered in the contest. In a recent development, he reported late Thursday on a settlement that will result in the fast-tracked release of thousands of nonviolent prisoners to ease overcrowding.

CPP contributing photographer Melissa Sue Gerrits received third place in feature photography for her images of a Fayetteville bookstore’s staff cautiously reopening following the easing of early pandemic restrictions on businesses. 

Diane Parfitt looks out the window of her store City Center Gallery & Books in Fayetteville on Monday. Parfitt’s shop has gone through the process of reopening in recent days, returning to mostly regular hours with the requirement that customers wear masks while they shop. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

“Frank, Kate, Jordan, Neil, Imari, Melissa, and everyone on the team, worked under extraordinary circumstances, professionally and personally,” Newsome said. “These awards acknowledge that, but, most of all, highlight stellar work to make sure every person in our state has access to information that they need and deserve.”

CPP’s awards come in the N.C. Press Association’s online-only division, however fellow Watchdog Network member The News & Observer also received a first place award for Freedom of Information in the large daily newspapers division for the collaborative group’s work on exposing the consequences of a 2020 bill that would have blocked access to death records

Following this coverage of the bill that had passed with widespread bipartisan support and little attention, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the measure

“I’m so proud of our entire team, and especially of the dedicated effort they put forth under incredibly difficult circumstances as we rapidly geared up to report on the pandemic, helped form the Watchdog Reporting Network and produced an incredible volume of high quality work,” Taylor said. 

These awards recognize print and online news organization’s work in North Carolina between Oct. 1, 2019 and Sept. 30, 2020.

CPP celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The Asheville-based independent nonprofit began as a Western North Carolina regional provider of in-depth and investigative coverage of public-interest issues. In 2018, CPP expanded to statewide coverage.

“Our philosophy includes ‘statewide’ coverage, but much of what we do could be called ‘multilocal,’ because we are interested in sharing stories and images from all parts of North Carolina with all the people of North Carolina,” Taylor said.

CPP distributes content through many channels including free newsletters, social media and content-sharing partnerships with other media outlets. 

“We believe that everyone in our state is entitled to their fair share of the free press, regardless of the size of the town in which they live. When we see that our work in Wadesboro, Cashiers and Sylva wins awards alongside our work in Fayetteville, Raleigh and Asheville, we know that we have been true to our mission of service to our neighbors across this state.”  

Staff Reports

This release, story or event was developed through multiple sources and/or is from the staff of Carolina Public Press.