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November 15, 2013
Florida Bar bestows its media awards

Two newspapers and one TV station are winners of The Florida Bar Media Awards competition.

Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis presented plaques to journalists from the Orlando Sentinel, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, and WESH-TV (NBC Orlando) on October 14 at the Bar’s Reporters’ Workshop dinner in Tallahassee. The event was held on the 22nd floor of the Capitol, with six Florida Supreme Court justices among the attendees.

The 58th annual contest, sponsored by the Media & Communications Law Committee, recognizes outstanding journalism highlighting the system of law and justice as it affects Floridians. Any newspaper, blog, radio station, TV station, or wire service located in Florida is eligible to enter.

“There were a lot of great entries this year,” said Media Awards Committee Chair Edward Birk of Marks Gray in Jacksonville, and a former Associated Press reporter. “But three stood out from all the rest. The formats were different, but in terms of quality, the prize-winning print and broadcast entries were stellar.”

The Orlando Sentinel won first prize in print for a series of editorials on the judicial system. Opinions editor Paul Owens alerted the public to what he called “two significant threats to the independence of Florida courts: an effort by some state lawmakers to give the governor power to choose and appoint all members of the judicial nominating commissions and a politically motivated campaign to defeat three state Supreme Court justices up for retention.” According to Owens, the Sentinel’s editorials were effective in moving opinion among lawmakers and voters. “The effort to remove The Florida Bar from the JNC process did not pass in the Legislature and the campaign to oust the justices failed.”

Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers took second-place honors in print. Reporter Melissa Holsman’s in-depth look at the appeal process of Death Row inmates in Florida came as the result of complaints from sources that the process was confusing and purposely delayed for condemned prisoners. Following the execution of convicted killer David Alan Gore, who had been on death row for nearly 30 years, the newspaper spent six months combing through records to learn why it takes so long to execute some inmates and how much it costs taxpayers during the appeal process. Holsman said as a result of the newspaper investigation, “Several officials — including Sen. Joe Negron, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder, and Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl — called for the state to change its death row appeal process. The bill passed and the Timely Justice Act took effect in July.”

In the broadcast category, WESH-TV News Channel 2 of Orlando received a first-prize honor for “TextGate,” an investigative series of 16 reports in three weeks by reporter Greg Fox. “TextGate” began after Orange County commissioners voted to reject a proposal to place a referendum on the November 2012 ballot, that if passed, would have mandated earned sick leave for all full- and part-time employees in Orange County.

WESH made a public records request for all emails between commissioners, their staff, and lobbyists for major sick pay opponents, including Disney, Universal, and Darden Restaurants, to name a few. What WESH reportedly discovered was that the parties had been communicating via texting.

A subsequent public records request revealed that “Commissioners and staffers were deleting the texts (a potential violation of public records laws), and had actually been communicating a plan among commissioners through lobbyists (mutual friends), which may have been a violation of Florida’s ‘Government in the Sunshine’ open meetings laws.” As a result of the investigation, according to WESH, “The county has now implemented a new technology program, in which all workers with county-provided cell phones/smart phones must undergo training on state public records laws.”

The awards judges were media lawyers Judy Mercier of Holland & Knight in Orlando and Dwayne Robinson of Hogan Lovells in Miami; Teresa Ponte, chair and associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Broadcasting at Florida International University, Miami; Lenita Wesson, news anchor, WMDT/ABC-47, Salisbury, Md., and Julian Miller, public affairs administrator for the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department, Savannah, Ga.

[Revised: 02-27-2014]