Peabody win comes full circle for Grady College alumnus

When Randy Travis (ABJ ’82) was a Grady College journalism student, he took a class called “History of Program Ideas,” taught by Worth McDougald, director of the Peabody Awards from 1963 to 1991. Each class period was spent analyzing a different entry from the vast Peabody archive — all exhibiting the best in storytelling techniques.

“If someone had told me 39 years ago, that one day, a story that I had a hand in would be in those archives with all those shows I listened to, I would have said ‘you’re crazy,’” Travis said, with a combination of humility, shock and pride in his voice. “But, they put me on the path of storytelling…that’s what that class did for me.”

On May 18, Travis, a reporter for the investigative team from WAGA Fox 5 Atlanta, will accept the Peabody Award for investigative journalism for a series that aired in 2018 called “$2 Tests: Bad Arrests.” The 78th Peabody Awards ceremony takes place May 18, 2019, in New York City.

“I have been fortunate to win awards in my career,” Travis said, “and, they are always thrilling, but this is the cream of the crop. This is an award that you dare to dream about.”

The series examined inexpensive drug tests used by many police departments during traffic stops. The tests are designed to analyze substances found in cars and determine whether the substance is a narcotic or not. The problem is that many tests are returned with false-positives for harmless everyday items like headache powder, cotton candy and vitamins. Citizens were arrested, creating chaos in their lives, time in jail, lost jobs and tarnished reputations…all based on information that many times was false.

When Travis suspected that this was not an isolated incident, he and the I-Team investigated whether these false-positive results were a trend. Over six-month period, the team submitted FOIA requests and researched incident reports indicating a drug test came positive for illegal drugs. After reviewing more than 1,000 records from police precincts, sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies in Georgia, the investigators found at least 145 cases were false-positives and resulted in arrests based on these drug tests. Travis said that number is conservative because that number doesn’t include reports that were restricted and were not reviewed.

As a result of this investigative report, changes are being made in the law enforcement process: “The most encouraging result we have seen from our investigation,” Travis said, “is that police departments now are not accepting the results of these tests as gospel. They are using them as just one of many tools to decide if someone should be arrested.”

Randy Travis (l.) and Ashlyn Webb (second from right) are joined by Dale Russell, senior investigative reporter, and Mindy Larcom, producer for the FOX 5 I-Team after the series won an award from the Atlanta Press Club in April. “Randy Travis, Dale Russell, Dana Fowle, and the FOX 5 Atlanta I-Team are truly my role models. Having the chance to intern with such phenomenal investigative reporters was an honor. ” (Photo: Courtesy of Ashlyn Webb)

Many law enforcement agencies have stopped using the kits entirely or they are waiting to arrest a suspect until after the confirmation of the questionable substance is returned from the state crime lab.

There are other impacts of the report, as well.

Just as McDougald set Travis on a path of storytelling that eventually led to this Peabody Award, so did Travis have an impact on the education of two Grady College students.

Ashlyn Webb (AB ’19), a third-year journalism student, spent the summer of 2018 interning for the Fox 5 I-Team, and Sidney Shadrix (MA ’19), spent a week shadowing for the I-Team. During the time Webb and Shadrix were with the I-Team, they worked on the “$2 Test” series, gathering, following up and analyzing the police incident reports. In addition, Webb interviewed some of the victims in the report.

“I really appreciate assistance of the interns,” Travis said of the Webb and Shadrix. “We really are a team and it was great to have the interns as part of our team for this significant project. They were a second and third set of eyes that helped us find stories to tell the story

For Webb, interning at Fox 5 was a growth experience where she could apply lessons learned in class. Lessons including accessing records, analyzing data and fact checking from Information Gathering class and how to file FOIAs and open records requests discussed in Communication Law were used day to day last summer.

“Having the chance to work on this Peabody-Award winning investigative series with Randy Travis and the FOX 5 Atlanta team was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Webb said of the group that continues to mentor her even after internship has ended. “It’s even more rewarding to see the story that I had the privilege of contributing to is making a difference locally, nationally, and now, even internationally.”

View a special presentation of “$2 Tests: Bad Arrests” here.

Peabody Citation for $2 Tests: Bad Arrests

In a prime example of the ripple effect of excellent local investigate reporting, reporter Randy Travis delves into the reliability of drug-testing kits, known as “$2 Tests,” used by police around the country as a quick, cheap way to analyze suspicious substances in the field. Despite warnings of the tests giving false positives, dashcam videos show how police regularly relied on them to arrest individuals for everyday items such as headache powder, vitamins, or cleaning supplies. The coverage led police departments to drop the tests and compelled professional associations to educate law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders on the fallibility of the tests.

Executive Producers: Eric Ludgood. Associate Producers/Producers: Mindy Larcom, Aaron Willen, Randy Travis. Writers: Randy Travis. Editors: Randall Rinehart. Reporters: Randy Travis. Photography: Aaron Willen.


#GradyInternDiaries: Lindsey Conway

Name: Lindsey Conway  

Major: Journalism  

Title of Internship: Investigative Intern 

Company: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cox Media Group

Location: Dunwoody, Georgia  

Responsibilities: As an intern, I helped research, report and write stories for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigative team.

What was the best part about your summer internship?

Definitely the people. You would think in a newsroom full of journalists constantly hustling and bustling that there wouldn’t be a lot of time for an intern. But, that wasn’t the case at the AJC. Many extremely talented and experienced journalists would take time out of their days to share knowledge at lunch and learn sessions, and several met privately with me for coffee or lunch. The AJC also assigned each intern a mentor. My mentor would check in on me weekly and give me advice on the investigative story I was attempting to tackle or just talk about how I was doing. I really appreciate each of the reporters and editors who took time to invest in me over the summer.                    

What is the most memorable experience you had during your internship?  

Lindsey Conway works on an assignment in the AJC newsroom as an investigative intern.

I will never forget the endearing smile and joking nature of Ms. Helene Mills, a 90-year-old woman living in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. As an investigative intern, I got to interview Ms. Mills, who was key to showing the impact of the Atlanta Beltline, one of the biggest redevelopment projects in the Southeast, on one of the city’s most impoverish neighborhoods. With property taxes increasing by leaps and bounds in Atlanta over the past few years, people such as Ms. Mills might not be able to remain in their homes. Without enough affordable housing created by the Atlanta Beltline project, Atlanta may become a city for the rich.  

Working on this story opened my eyes to how just how much influence investigative journalism can have. The reporting on the Beltline story brought to light critical failures of the Atlanta Beltline Inc., the entity responsible for redeveloping the city around the Beltline, a 49-mile loop of trails. The story also pushed city officials to consider organizational changes at Beltline Inc.   

What was the biggest surprise in your internship?

I was surprised by the amount of freedom the AJC offered its interns, in terms of experimenting and trying out different skills in the newsroom. As an investigative intern, my primary role was to work with reporters on larger scale projects, but I was also able to pitch my own stories and work with different teams across the newsroom to get a taste of working on quicker turn around stories.  

One of my favorite experiences outside of working on the Beltline project was running around on July 4 interviewing finishers at the AJC Peachtree Road Race. After slowly combing through information for the investigative story, jogging up and down the finish line at the road race and watching out for any breaking news was a welcomed break. These were two very different projects, but each was valuable and taught me to be flexible. 

What is the most valuable lesson or skill you learned during your internship? 

While working on the Beltline project, I worked under an extremely experienced reporter named Willoughby Mariano. I had the privilege of shadowing Willoughby on some of the more critical interviews. Watching her ease the subjects into telling her information was an incredible sight. As I work on my own stories, I try to use some of the same tactics as she did to make my sources feel more comfortable and open up to me. I also shoot to make my interviews last about an hour, per a tip from Willoughby. She says when she hits the hour mark, she knows the source has really warmed up to her and opened up about the topic.

How did your internship help confirm your desired career path or make you re-evaluate what you want to do in the future?  

My internship this summer re-affirmed just how important journalism is to our society and further inspired me to work in this field. Journalists hold powerful people accountable and protect and inform the average citizen. This is what I hope to continue to do in my future as a journalist. I want to use my platform and voice to bring to light injustices and inspire changes that will make this world a little better place to live in.