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MFP Wins 10 1st-Place Awards, 17 Total Honors in 2023 SPJ Diamond Awards

Caution: This column contains graphic depictions of race violence and sexual assault.

Reporters Aliyah Veal, Nick Judin and Kayode Crown led the Mississippi Free Press’ tremendous showing in last night’s Society for Professional Journalists’ Diamond Awards in Little Rock, Ark. A total of 12 MFP team members shared in 17 honors, with ten of them first-place awards. The same day, Ashton Pittman won the Best News-Based Twitter Thread Award for his viral Brett Farve timeline.i

Veal led the MFP’s honor roll with three first-place awards, including two for her powerful journalism leading the Hinds County/public-safety focus of our collaboration with the Jackson Advocate, the “(In)Equity and Resilience: Black Women, Systemic Barriers and COVID-19” Project, also called the BWC Project and supported by the Solutions Journalism Network. Veal’s solutions piece about Oresa Napper-Williams, a mother who lost her son to gun violence in New York City, won first place for best profile. She also won first place for arts and entertainment coverage for her long-form piece on the “Great Migration” exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art.

Veal shared the first-place award for special section/niche publication for the BWC Project microsite, which she shared with Acacia Clark, Kristin Brenemen,  Donna Ladd and project collaborator DeAnna Tisdale Johnson of the Jackson Advocate. She also was a finalist for Best New Journalist in the contest.

“This is a remarkably strong entry full of both  tragedy and inspiration. Every article is strong,” judges wrote about the BWC Project. “… The deep look at poverty, crime, and  housing problems in Hinds County stood head and shoulders above the  other entries in the depth and breadth of its reporting along with its powerful visual presentation. It was all the more impressive in having been reported and written by young journalists. …  This is such impressive journalism  about people, events, and communities that are too often ignored by the mainstream media. Congratulations to all reporters, editors, researchers and photographers who produced such important work!”

Reporter Nick Judin won two first-place awards—both among top-tier special Diamond Awards. Judin won the Garrick Feldman Community Journalism Award for his impactful investigative reporting on deadly conditions in a Delta apartment complex in Bolivar County, supported by his national health fellowship through the Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. Judges wrote: “Judin’s work is the kind of incisive and insightful  reporting one hopes for from local reporting. I was deeply impressed by  Nick’s empathetic writing and aggressiveness in chasing the story.”

Judin also shared the Robert S. McCord Freedom of Information award with editor Donna Ladd for their efforts to get the Republican Caucus of the Mississippi House of Representatives—the majority of the House—to open its policy meetings to media and the public, leading to a very public and ongoing effort to get the Mississippi Legislature to declare itself a “public body.” Judges wrote: “The Mississippi Free Press’ coverage of and challenge to this artful and dangerous removal of the public business from  the public eye is nothing less than inspiring. This is something that state  government reporters and other journalists nationwide should be watching.  … The Mississippi Free Press could have just gone on getting some stories as best it could. But instead it fought a battle that needed to be fought.”

Judin was also a finalist for Diamond Journalist of the Year, health reporting and investigative reporting.

Kayode Crown
Kayode Crown, last year’s Diamond Journalist of the Year, won two first-place SPJ Diamonds awards for 2022 business reporting and environmental reporting about the Jackson water crisis. Photo courtesy Kayode Crown

Reporter Kayode Crown, last year’s Diamond Journalist of the Year in this contest, won two first-place awards. He won the first-place environmental reporting award for his coverage of the Jackson water crisis, some of which The Guardian co-published, as well as first place for business reporting for several enterprise pieces, including this one. “Writer Kayode Crown provides a regular supply of well-written, well-sourced, well-documented and well-illustrated work to put  a spotlight on issues important to Mississippi and surrounding states,” judges wrote about his work.

News Editor Ashton Pittman, a previous Diamond Journalist of the Year, won the first-place education reporting award for his in-depth story about a teacher being pushed out of a Pearl River County school for sharing her LGBTQ identity. Judges wrote that the piece was “compelling and well-executed. The article is to the point and clearly showcases the issues.”

a woman with glasses, braided brown pigtails and wearing a pair of overalls atop a white t-shirt poses in front of a painted power box featuring goldfish swimming against a blue backdrop. On her overalls is a small rainbow pin that says, 'Love is Love.'
Former Pearl River Central High School art teacher Catherine Bass told the Mississippi Free Press that, after coming out as pansexual to her students in September 2021, officials in the South Mississippi school district reprimanded her and warned that she could be fired if she openly shared her orientation again. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Pittman was named finalist for enterprise/in-depth reporting for his three-part series on the Christian dominionist movement in the state and across the U.S., and its connection to the Dobbs abortion case in Mississippi. The work was among the first journalism in the nation to take an in-depth look at the radical dominionist movement’s role in the Dobbs case.

He also was named the finalist for the Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder Public Service Award, along with Liam Pittman and Donna Ladd, for their work and columns related to the ongoing Mississippi Trusted Elections Project. The Pittmans have investigated and fact-checked perpetually faulty lists of voting precinct locations presented to the public during every election season since 2020, publishing accurate locations for the entire state. The work, supported by the Black Voters Matter Fund, led multiple national and state civil-rights organizations to write a letter demanding change to the State of Mississippi based on this MFP project.

Freelance writer Grace Marion won the Diamond award for feature writing for her piece on how race played into the upkeep and funding of two parks in Batesville, Miss., with judges calling it “a feature  with real purpose.” The judges wrote: “This writer makes the reader care about the issues  surrounding Patton Lane Park by digging into the subject from multiple  angles. The story succeeds by including historical context, diverse sources, local government meetings and beautiful images that support the story.”

A group of black cowboys wearing black and red, riding horses
The Ruthless Ryderz, founded in 2018, boasts members from across multiple states who continue the tradition of the Black rodeo. The group organizes rodeos in multiple areas, including the inaugural Southern Soul Black Invitational Rodeo in Tunica, Miss., on May 21, 2022. Photo by Kishka Johnson / courtesy Ruthless Ryderz

Freelance writer Torsheta Jackson, who joins the MFP as our education equity reporter, supported by Report for America, starting July 1, won first place for sports writing for her engaging and educational piece, “Legacy of the Black Cowboy in Tunica.” The judges wrote: “Excellent writing in a story that takes the reader into  a movement that would otherwise be hard to know about while also  uncovering history otherwise hidden. Covers history and current events succinctly in a way that frames the story historically, which can be hard to  do with a word limit.”

Photographer and writer Lukas Flippo, who interned with the Mississippi Free Press in the summer of 2022, was a finalist for photo spread/essay for “Latinx LGTBQ Mississippians Hold  ‘Queerceanera.’”

American Journalism Online Awards

In addition to the Diamond Awards, the American Journalism Online Awards, administered through the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, announced Tuesday that Ashton Pittman had won the Best News-Based Twitter Thread Award for his 2022 thread supporting his and Liam Pittman’s extensive timeline of Brett Farve’s connections to the Mississippi TANF/welfare scandal, particularly the USM volleyball stadium. The viral thread provided measured explanation to what had become a sensationalist, and not always correct, storyline.

Brett Favre with Tate Reeves and Phil Bryant
The American Journalism Online Awards, based at New York University, chose a timeline thread by news editor Ashton Pittman as the Best News-Based Twitter Thread in the country in its 2023 awards for his explanatory work on known communications by Brett Farve (top left) with former Gov. Phil Bryant (above right) about a volleyball stadium ultimately funded with federal welfare funds. Pittman and his husband, Liam Pittman, have done painstaking analysis of all available public messages and communications to put a sensationalistic story into proper context and order to help the public better understand a complicated and often mischaracterized story, which included requesting and first publishing communications between Farve and current Gov. Tate Reeves (above center).   Photo Tate Reeves/Twitter

Judges wrote: “When Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brett Favre was implicated in the largest public fraud case in Mississippi history, Ashton Pittman of the Mississippi Free Press traced the path of over $5 million of the more than $100 million misused funds in a Twitter thread. Multimedia elements included texts between Favre, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, and other state officials as they negotiated the use of welfare funds to build a volleyball facility at Favre’s alma mater, where his daughter played volleyball. By mastering the medium of Twitter threads, Pittman unpacked a complex state story with a compelling angle of public interest that elevated his reporting to a national audience.”

(Editor’s note: The Mississippi Free Press does not endorse any conclusions of guilt implied in the judges’ language or in reporting and statements by other publications that Bryant and/or Farve “negotiated the use of welfare funds” to build the volleyball court. We have not reached that conclusion in our or from other outlets’ reporting of communication trails. Neither man has been charged with a crime.)

See the MFP’s full awards archive here, and the Jackson Free Press archive here of awards from 2004 to 2021.

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