The News Tribune wins First Amendment award

SEATTLE — The News Tribune of Tacoma is the winner of this year’s Ted Natt First Amendment Award for its commitment to fighting for access to public records and the principles of open government.

The award presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association in Seattle honored the paper for its defense of the First Amendment and deep reporting on a wide range of issues.

“The News Tribune obviously has a long-term commitment to pursue open government at every available turn and with all means available,” said Edward Miller, one of the contest judges.

The award is named for the former publisher of The Daily News of Longview, Wash., who died in a helicopter crash in 1999. The competition was open to newspapers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana that are members of The Associated Press.

The judges also awarded an honorable mention to the Post Register of Idaho Falls, Idaho. “The Post Register series showed a tenacious pursuit of a good story about violations of the letter and spirit of open-records laws,” Miller said.

In a series of stories over the past year, The News Tribune demonstrated ongoing leadership in the fight for open records and open government. For example, following mass slayings in Colorado and Connecticut, and a series of local killings involving people with mental illness, the paper reviewed the state’s involuntary commitment system. It found numerous examples of mentally ill patients boarded without treatment in hospital emergency rooms, potentially in violation of state and federal law.

Reporters covering the story encountered numerous barriers to records and resistance from state and local officials, “but by using the leverage of rules governing open courts, we took an exclusive and deep look at commitment hearings,” Executive Editor Karen Peterson said.

“Day by day, month by month and year by year, The News Tribune fights for open government. It’s not an occasional commitment — it’s a duty, and we take it seriously,” Peterson wrote in a summary of the paper’s entry.

“We seek records the government tries to conceal. We attend meetings the government prefers to keep quiet. We’re on a first-name basis with the state’s open-government ombudsman. We insist on the legal access guaranteed to the public,” she noted. “When we face obstacles, we write about the officials who create them and name names. When we face legal resistance, we’re not afraid to go to court.”

In addition to Miller, a newsroom consultant and writing coach, the judges were Jim Daubel, a former publisher and editor of The News-Messenger of Fremont, Ohio, and Sue Price Johnson, a retired Associated Press bureau chief for the Carolinas.

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