Our Voices

Shining A Light in the Dark: The 2024 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book and Journalism Awards

Journalists and authors, such as those honored in the 2024 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book and Journalism Awards, “empower change. Their work is a rallying cry, drawing attention to abuses and inequities that cannot be ignored,” emphasized Kerry Kennedy in her opening remarks of this year’s award ceremony, moderated by eminent journalists gathered to celebrate the outstanding work of their colleagues who are indeed speaking truth to power. 

Being a journalist today is dangerous and challenging work. As Kerry noted, in 2023 “journalists were imprisoned in extraordinary numbers and over 100 lost their lives in the line of duty.” In addition, book bans and challenges have risen to historic highs. Courage and commitment, therefore, are hallmarks of the journalists honored with this year’s awards. Citizen journalists armed with nothing more than their cell phones courageously documented the stories featured in Frontline PBS’s International Television Award winning documentary “Inside the Iranian Uprising.” Using her camera, Fatima Shbair, winner of the International Photography Award and the Seigenthaler Courage in Journalism Prize, is documenting the conflict in Gaza even as she suffers from the conflict on the ground. 

Commitment is also required to shine a light on truths that those in power want to bury. In order to expose the systemic issues that allow abusive prison guards to keep their jobs, reporters Joseph Neff and Alysia Santo of The Marshall Project had to comb through 450 pages of spreadsheets with “messy and inconsistent case information” which took a skilled data editor four months to clean up. Even retrieving these public files took a year and the dedicated work of pro bono lawyers. “It was a big obstacle,” recalls Neff. Their work culminated in the Criminal Justice Award winning piece “How New York’s Abusive Guards Keep Their Jobs.”  Similarly, the investigative team behind “Hidden Confessions of the Mormon Church” had to scour thousands of pages of sealed court records along with hours of recordings in order to unveil the Mormon church’s intentional cover-up of sexual abuse. 

“The data analysis was relatively simple,” reflects Nathan Yuan, author of “The Hidden Homeless,” about his examination of homeless Illinois students who lack access to critical social services because they are not counted by their schools. “What was difficult was that most of the information is hidden on government databases behind hundreds of pages of documents.” Taking the time to sort through such massive amounts of often intentionally obscured information is grueling, but necessary work. As journalists and authors, “we need to try to bring things out to the public that are hidden,” argues Neff. 

This kind of investigative work also requires patience and ingenuity. In the case of Rachel de Leon who uncovered a systemic silencing and criminalization of sexual assault victims in her Domestic Television winning work “Victim/Suspect,” it took three years before even one detective returned her call and four years of painstaking investigative work in total. Julia Lurie, author of “Inside the Psychiatric Hospitals Where Foster Kids Are A ‘Gold Mine,’” spent a year uncovering the link between foster care systems and healthcare giants. In an act of resourcefulness and dedication, a team from The Outlaw Ocean Project pulled alongside Chinese fishing boats and threw aboard weighted bottles containing questions, hoping that workers would respond to them and throw the bottles back. Their work ultimately resulted in Ian Urbina’s International Print Award winning article “China: The Superpower of Seafood.”

Fundamental to this work is opening information access to others. Neff, for example, trains people how to use the database the Marshall Project created. Pauline Arrillaga and her students who wrote this year’s Grand Prize winning entry “America After Roe,” an exploration of the impact of the historic overturning of Roe v. Wade, made their insightful reporting freely available to anyone who wants to use it. Professor Blair Kelley, author of this year’s Book Award work Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class, wants to share with readers often forgotten stories of black laborers to “provide a pathway for people to have authentic connection to our past.” 

“We need to focus on revealing the truth of what we see and shining a light in the dark,” asserts Yuan, an act which galvanizes important change. Yuan’s article, for instance, was instrumental in compelling the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to advocate for Illinois House Bill 5407 which seeks to rectify the underreporting of homeless youth in schools. Two of the women profiled by de Leon are now training police officers around the country. Additionally, Hannah Dreier’s Nontraditional Award winning work, “Alone and Exploited,” which exposes the alarming realities of child labor in America, prompted legislators from both parties to launch oversight investigations culminating in the introduction of child labor law bills.  

In addition to sparking policy changes, these journalists and authors aim to educate and thereby empower readers. Arrillaga and her students want “to keep [the overturning of Roe] present in people’s minds” so they can continue to see the impact of the legislation, to remember that “the Supreme Court decision was only the beginning.” Neff says that one of his goals is “that people will realize this is a systemic problem” and “think more deeply about what we have created in this country with our prison system.” Kelley hopes that her work will not only help people to privilege their own histories, but will encourage the next generation of oral historians to collect their local and family stories which will “illuminate the trials and triumphs of those too often overlooked.”

The powerful work of these journalists and authors are an invitation to all of us to see, to acknowledge, and to act. April Pierdant, one of the student reporters of “America After Roe” says that this work “underscores the vital role that journalism plays in holding power to account and amplifying voices of those affected by significant legal and social changes.” 

Additional winners: 

Domestic Photo Winner: Washington Post photojournalist Jahi Chikwendiu for  “Black Maternal Mortality” 

Cartoon Winner Peter Kuper

Special Recognition Book Award: Timothy Egan for A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them