Moody College Announces Winners of 2023 Dan Rather Medals
Moody College of Communication’s School of Journalism and Media has announced the winners of this year’s Dan Rather Medals for News and Guts, which are awarded to journalists who go the extra mile to hold people and institutions accountable.
Two reporting teams share the professional prize, Brian van der Brug and Paige St. John of the Los Angeles Times for a series of articles that are part of the “Legal Weed, Broken Promises” series and Ian Urbina, an independent journalist, for his podcast series “The Outlaw Ocean Project,” which is as partnership between the Los Angeles Times and CBC.
Indiana Daily Student reporter Evan Gerike won the collegiate prize for his story ‘The program is doomed: Players say Indiana volleyball coach Steve Aird created a culture of fear.”
Gerike will receive a $5,000 prize and the two professional winners will each receive $5,000.
The Los Angeles Times series “Legal Weed, Broken Promises” exposes the hidden toll from California's booming cannabis market, including violence, community disruption, widespread worker exploitation and the uninvestigated deaths of scores of workers.
“With this report, Paige St. John and Brian van der Brug have shown what it takes to dig deep into a big difficult story that many powerful people don’t want exposed,” Rather said of the series. “When The University of Texas began awarding these medals, one of the expressed purposes was to call attention to this kind of investigative journalism and to inspire more of it. I hope Paige and Brian are as proud of their work as they deserve to be.”
St. John and Van der Brug said they were extremely grateful to receive the award.
“I grew up influenced by Dan Rather in action. It was Rather-in-the-field, pursing tough questions under difficult conditions that set the ideal of what real reporting looks like,” St. John said. “To receive an honor in Rather's name means to me that the judges saw some of that in our work. It means they share with us the belief that those we are reporting on matter. And thus it is a story worth pursuing, whatever it took.”
Since “Legal Weed, Broken Promises” was published, the state has taken a number of actions, including audits, hearings and reforms aimed at curtailing bribery, conflicts of interest and other misdeeds. The state is also exploring how to clear marijuana convictions faster and has launched an investigation into cannabis and farm work in rural California.
“It’s rewarding to see movement in the California legislature and other government agencies in the months since our series was published,” Van der Brug said. “It’s a start, and my hope is to keep telling the stories of growers and workers and hold politicians accountable for the system they set up.”
Urbina’s “The Outlaw Ocean Project” is a seven-part immersive podcast series that explores the lawlessness of the seven oceans, which are populated by traffickers, smugglers, pirates, mercenaries, repo men, vigilante conservationists, elusive poachers, seabound abortion providers, clandestine oil dumpers, slaves and stowaways. It took eight years to report.
One of the judges commented that the podcast was so thorough and emotionally striking it was as if listeners were there.
“Ian Urbina’s ‘The Outlaw Ocean Project’ demonstrates how important a podcast can be,” Rather said of the series. “He has produced a work of sustained journalistic excellence. It reveals truths while engaging listeners hearts as well as minds.”
Urbina said the hardest part of reporting the story was the time and gritty conditions involved in doing stories at sea, as well as the heaviness of the subject matter. He said he was beyond grateful to be recognized with the Dan Rather Medal. “I grew up watching Dan Rather. He set the bar, in my head, for measured rigorous journalistic inquiry. So, this award feels special for its tie to him,” Urbina said.
Gerike’s piece looks at how Indiana University volleyball coach Steve Aird created a culture of fear for student players, including through harassment and personal attacks.
“This story took courage and five months of dogged reporting, a huge effort for a student,” one judge said of the piece. “The reporter faced a popular and stonewalling coach, opposition from the administration that had already closed its investigation, a seemingly onerous process of FOIAs and appeals, a disconcerting inability to get a legal review, and above all, the immense challenge of finding student athletes who had experienced abuse and persuading them to talk despite fears of retaliation. This is an excellent piece of investigative reporting on a story that matters and the kind of grit and persistence in accountability reporting that meets the criteria of the Rather awards.”
Gerike said the most difficult part of reporting the story was working with sources who were hesitant to agree to an interview. The most rewarding part was hearing back from sources that they appreciated the story being told, he said.
“Congratulations to Evan Gerike. What he has done is a prime example of the kind of investigative work by students the “Rather Medal” always hopes to encourage and recognize,” Rather said of Gerike’s work.
This year, the School of Journalism and Media gave a fourth award posthumously to investigative journalist Jeff German of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, who was killed outside his home last September in retaliation for his work.
“Jeff German was an exceptionally brave journalist who died a hero,” Rather said. “His death reminds us, not just journalists but the public at large, that investigative work of the kind German did almost always involves some level of risk and often is downright dangerous. All the more reason it needs to be supported and admired.”
The Dan Rather Medals for News and Guts were created by The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication, with Rather’s guidance, in 2020 to honor courageous journalism and to encourage reporters to pursue necessary stories.
Collegiate and professional winners were selected from a competitive pools of entries. Judges represented higher education and professional news media.
Rather started working as a journalist in his native Texas in 1950 and was the “CBS Evening News” anchor from 1981 to 2005. He has been a staunch supporter of the School of Journalism and Media at UT Austin and is a permanent member of Moody College’s Advisory Council.