Tampa Bay Times' Alexandra Zayas wins major journalism award

The 30-year-old Miami native told CL on Tuesday that she wasn't sure what kind of effect the series would have on the public or her colleagues, "but I recognized very early on that this story would make some kind of an impact for the very basic reason that it had gone untold for decades."

The judging panel consisted of seven reporters and editors from across the country and was chaired by Sacramento Bee managing editor Tom Negrete, who said in a statement:

"'In God's Name' is a remarkable mix of live interviews and reporting from public records that exposed a serious lack of oversight and regulation together with shocking cases of abuse at religious children's homes in Florida. The judges were impressed by the doggedness of a single reporter, Alexandra Zayas, in the face of countless obstacles — including the challenge of earning the trust of dozens of sensitive sources. The series documents Florida's utter abdication of regulation of these homes, and shows how families were misled in entrusting their sons and daughters to religious-based camps with no accountability to anyone. The story was well-organized and its multimedia presentation compelling and powerful."

Zayas said when she was researching news archives she found articles about troubled homes, but they were usually isolated.

"Nobody, as far as I could tell, had looked at them all in the same statewide frame or sought to dissect a systematic problem," she responded via e-mail. "There were no in-depth stories about the 1984 religious exemption that allowed homes to run outside state oversight, and when I consulted with experts in the child welfare world, they had never even heard of it. So at the very least, from the very beginning, I knew I would be telling people about something they didn't know."

Zayas said the biggest challenge with putting the piece together was framing the story in the best, most effective fashion. She praised the guidance she received from the Times' recently-hired investigative editor Chris Davis.

"I learned so much from him," she said.

Zayas continues to work on the story. Last week, she reported about a Fort Pierce judge who gave Southeastern Military Academy until June 30, 2014, to gain the accreditation of two state-recognized organizations. That is a "drop dead" date, the judge said.

"The fact that the state is scrutinizing the unaccredited boarding schools we identified is a direct impact of the series," she said. "There are now outside eyes on places that operated in the dark."

As far as what Zayas will do with that sweet $35,000 cash reward?

"Everyone is asking me what I'm going to do with the money. I'm not sure yet, but I will be putting a lot of thought into it," she said.

Since graduating from the University of Miami in 2005, Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas has regularly covered a variety of subjects, most prominently the Hillsborough County court system. But her byline was absent for a good part of 2012 as she worked on an exclusive investigative piece, which for several months she refused to tell outsiders (i.e. non Times employees) about.

In late October, the story finally hit. "In God's Name" is a three-part series examining unlicensed religious homes in Florida.

Among Zayas' findings: Throughout the past decade, state authorities responded to at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect, but homes remained open even after evidence of sexual abuse and physical injury, including children who were "bruised, bloodied and choked to unconsciousness in the name of Christian discipline."

On Monday, Zayas' hard work was recognized when she was awarded USC Annenberg's 2013 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.

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