Columbia Journalism School
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  • The Tobenkin Award honors New York Herald Tribune reporter Paul Tobenkin’s work and recognizes achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the U.S.
  • Abandoned and boarded apartments in Baltimore which once gave some of their occupants lead poisoning. Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post
  • Workers pick strawberries in the fields next to Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, California. Talia Buford/Center for Public Integrity
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  • The Tobenkin Award honors New York Herald Tribune reporter Paul Tobenkin’s work and recognizes achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the U.S.

Tobenkin Award

Tobenkin Award: 2016 Winner and Finalists

J'12 MA Politics graduate Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post has won the 2016 Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for a series of jaw dropping investigative stories about lead poisoning victims like Freddie Gray who suffered twice; first from being poisoned in their homes by lead paint and then, after receiving court settlements, at the hands of a nefarious industry that targets victims of lead poisoning and swindles them out of their court settlements paying them dimes on the dollar. [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]

The jurors write in their citation: “Terrence McCoy's work at the Washington Post struck the jurors as an inspiring example of both classic and remarkable reporting.


He dutifully followed the traditional journalist’s curiosity when, in looking into the life of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, he discovered that Gray had been the victim of lead poisoning as a child and received a substantial monetary settlement in 2008 for the resulting disability.  But when McCoy further learned that Gray had sold hundreds of thousands of dollars of his payout for dimes on the dollar to a financial company called Access Funding, he dug much deeper and uncovered a startling story about a largely unregulated settlement purchasing industry in Maryland that has profited off of the some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.  McCoy uncovered scores of other similar cases of victims who received pennies on the dollar for their structured settlements while companies like Access Funding reaped the windfall in highly questionable transactions. The reporting has lead to swift actions by the state and cast a spotlight on a troubling practice. The Washington Post reported that Maryland's attorney general launched an investigation into the settlement purchasing industry and new state legislation was introduced that would put new requirements on these purchases. Maryland's highest court also approved measures that would dramatically change how companies buy the rights to structured settlements. This is the type of reporting that has a lasting impact for generations, and we are pleased to honor Terry McCoy for his achievement.”

McCoy is a staff writer at the Washington Post, where he covers poverty and social justice. McCoy joined the Washington Post in March of 2014. Previously, he was a staff writer with Village Voice Media in Miami, Fla.

Born and raised in Madison, Wisc., McCoy graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelors of Arts and later earned an M.A. in Politics at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Between 2009 and 2011, McCoy served in the United States Peace Corps in Cambodia and is fluent in Khmer. McCoy authored "The Playground," an e-book that uncovered how China's building spree in Cambodia ripped families apart and left tens of thousands homeless. 

McCoy lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife.

The Tobenkin judges have decided to award finalist citations to reporters from The Center for Public Integrity and NBCBLK for their investigative series “Environmental Justice, Denied.” Kristen Lombardi, Talia Buford and Ronnie Greene of The Center for Public Integrity, Amber Payne of NBCBLK and John Brecher of NBC News will receive citations for their groundbreaking work.

The jurors write in their citation: We are pleased to honor the Tobenkin Award finalist, the Center for Public Integrity and NBC BLK, for its exhaustive and vital reporting in the nine-month investigation “Environmental Justice, Denied.”  While it is no secret that communities of color have long been burdened by the placement of sewage treatment plants, incinerators, landfills and pesticide spraying, the groundbreaking analysis by this team of reporters showed that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Civil-Rights Office, which was established to protect these communities from environmental injustice, had remained largely inactive despite hundreds of serious claims it has received over its 22 year history.  The reporting opened a trove of documents to the public to trace this inaction. And reporters did not stop with a paper trail; they fanned out to communities across the U.S. to hear from residents about how these toxic facilities have affected their lives.  The series resulted in a wave of additional news coverage and prompted the EPA to take steps to reform its Civil Rights Office. 

The Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award was established at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1959—during the heart of the civil rights movement—to honor Paul Tobenkin, The New York Herald Tribune reporter’s work and to recognize outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States.

The Tobenkin Award is judged by Columbia Journalism School faculty. The 2016 judges are Elena Cabral, June Cross, and Abi Wright.

McCoy will receive a $2,000 honorarium. McCoy and the "Environmental Justice, Denied" team will be honored at Columbia University’s Journalism Day ceremony on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.

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