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.”
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.”
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.