Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into doctors earns Scripps Howard Award

Posted at 9:21 AM, Apr 04, 2017

Danny Robbins set out to do a story on prison medical care.

More than a year later, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and a team from the newspaper have medical boards and state legislatures throughout the country looking into the ways physicians are punished for sexual misconduct. 

The findings showed a system where two-thirds of doctors disciplined in Georgia for sexual misconduct were permitted to practice again.

The detailed investigation examined 100,000 disciplinary documents and other records from across the country to show that Georgia was not alone in the discipline of doctors for sexual misconduct.

For the full investigation, click here.

The series of stories from the AJC’s investigation of “Doctors & Sex Abuse” earned the 2016 Scripps Howard Award in the Ursula and Gilbert Farfel Prize for Investigative Reporting.

The Scripps Howard Foundation is the philanthropic arm of The E.W. Scripps Company, which owns this website.

“In these times where there’s so much going on around politics, it’s been great for the investigative reporting and all the stories that Scripps is recognizing, the great work in journalism,” said Carrie Teegardin, a member of the AJC investigative team that worked on the project. “It’s really nice, positive feedback for all of us journalists.”

The Scripps Howard Foundation will honor all award winners beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern on April 12 at The Aronoff Center for the Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio. The event will be livestreamed at for those who cannot attend.

“Recognizing the best journalism in the country is a fundamental mission of Scripps Howard Foundation,” said Liz Carter, president and CEO of the foundation. “We, along with the judges, were impressed with the quality of journalism in submissions from the smallest of hometown newspapers to newer digital media brands to the traditional powerhouses whose investigations extend to global audiences. We commend the work these journalists did in 2016 and the impact their words, videos and interactive elements will continue to have across our communities. They embody our motto of giving light and changing lives.”

For the AJC, the massive investigation began after Robbins noticed that doctors were permitted to return to practice after being disciplined for sexual misconduct, Teegardin said.

“That’s kind of how we first got interested in the topic and it raised a question in our minds: Was it just a Georgia thing or was it similarly happening across the country?” Teegardin said.

The investigation led to a massive undertaking. The AJC list of people involved in the production of the project includes more than 40 people, including parent-company Cox Media Group employees, interns and freelancers.

The organization’s data journalism team wrote 50 programs to “crawl” regulators’ websites in a process dubbed “scraping” to help sift through the more than 100,000 disciplinary documents and records the investigation uncovered after the AJC team realized databases did not exist in many states.

The programs were critical to cutting down the work and making the national investigation possible, Teegardin said.

“I think we would have had to limit it to a really in-depth look at one state, maybe some anecdotes from elsewhere,” she said. “But because of those tools, we were really able to do a definitive project on all 50 states and the 64 medical boards that operate in those states.”

After the programs decluttered some of the irrelevant data, a team of reporters analyzed more than 10,000 documents to find out the violations and the consequences for the doctors involved.

“The Atlanta Journal Constitution did a great job of old-fashioned, shoe leather reporting combined with superb data reporting,” said Mark Tomasik, a retired editor for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and judge for the award. 

The project resulted not only in state legislatures throughout the country considering new laws but also shed light on an issue that went unknown throughout much of the nation. Teegardin said women throughout the country contacted the AJC after the first story published.

“I think we gave voice to a lot of women who remained silent for in some cases decades about what had happened to them,” Teegardin said. “I think that was the most gratifying thing that we had all experienced was feeling that we had given voice to the voiceless. That’s our highest calling as journalists often and in this series, I felt that we really did that.”