Journalism

Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards honor South Florida reporters who challenged leaders on COVID-19 response and more

Six South Florida reporting teams share $23,000 in awards for their public service reporting. Hear their stories at a free, virtual event on May 13.

April 28, 2021 — MIAMI — After a year where the need for local news was apparent and urgent, six South Florida reporting teams that excelled at public service journalism are being honored by the Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards. Founded by the Esserman family and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the awards celebrate local news, the reporters behind it and the importance of journalism to communities and people’s lives.  

At a virtual event on May 13, the top award winners will share how their groundbreaking stories came to be. The initiative will also honor PBS White House Correspondent and Miami native Yamiche Alcindor for excellence in journalism. Registration is now available at essermanknightawards.org.  

In the awards’ second year, two Miami Herald reporting series are sharing first prize for their stories that penetrated notoriously secretive entities – Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the cruise ship industry – and challenged their approaches to COVID-19. They are receiving $7,500 each. 

Monique O. Madan, who received three separate nominations for the award, was honored for her tireless and courageous individual reporting on the “Immigration Pandemic.” Beginning her reporting while she herself battled COVID, Madan ultimately interviewed more than 337 ICE detainees behind bars during the course of a year and chronicled some of their living conditions as cases climbed in facilities. Her reporting also revealed major gaps in immigration procedures, including those concerning a man detained for 11 years — so long other inmates called him “abuelo.” Madan’s investigation ultimately led to his release. Another of her pieces uncovered that ICE was coercing detainees to self-deport, a process that was halted after the story was published. 

In addition, a Herald team led by tourism reporter Taylor Dolven won for its series “COVID Cruises,” which unveiled the extent of COVID-19 cases on cruise ships at a time when executives insisted ship-board infections were few. To determine the truth, the Herald created and published a database of outbreaks, finding at least 3,908 COVID-19 cases and 111 deaths linked to 87 cruise ships. In addition, the team told the story of crew members forced to stay at sea during the pandemic and created a WhatsApp newsletter that served, for many, as their only link to news from the outside world. This series of work paved the way for the crew members to get off their ships and home to their families. The team also included Emily Michot, Sarah Blaskey, Nick Nehamas, Alex Harris, Forrest Milburn and Jane Wooldridge. 

WPLG Reporter Glenna Milberg, Photographer Mario Alonso and Producer Natalie de Varona won runner-up for their investigation into a “shill” candidate in the November 2020 race for State Senate District 37. Three additional projects are being honored for their impact. Reporters receiving an honorable mention award include Mario ArizaCindy Goodman and David Fleshler of the Sun Sentinel; Jacqueline Charles, the Miami Herald’s Caribbean correspondent and Dan Christensen of the Florida Bulldog. Descriptions of their work are below. 

The awards are part of a $2.5 million investment that the late Ron Esserman and his wife Charlene  – along with their children Jim, Susan, Lisa and Laura – made in local journalism in early 2020. The initiative, housed at The Miami Foundation, is in partnership with Knight Foundation, which is supporting the administration of the awards. The Esserman family also supports an annual fellowship for an early-career investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, and is adding a second fellowship in the summer of 2021. 

“In a challenging year, where reporters risked personal safety while also facing cutbacks in their own newsrooms, South Florida journalists continuously delivered us the information we needed to survive the pandemic,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation. “These reporters are the definition of essential workers, during COVID and beyond, and we’re thrilled to join the Esserman family in recognizing their contributions to our community and our democracy.” 

“This year’s winners are courageous journalists who have shed light on issues of injustice and corruption and have demanded accountability from the powerful,” Charlene Esserman said. “Celebrating high quality journalism keeps the fire of freedom burning and ensures that a free press will survive and thrive. Our family looks forward to continuing to highlight and support the people who do this important work.” 

The work of the additional teams being honored include: 

Runner-up ($5,000) 

Glenna Milberg, Mario Alonso and Natalie de Varona of WPLG Local 10 News for “The Shill Scheme:” Last fall, incumbent State Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez lost his senate seat by just 34 votes. When Milberg probed further, she ultimately uncovered that someone planted a “shill” candidate who shared Rodriguez’s last name to siphon off votes, a pattern she also found in another Florida senate district. Milberg tracked down the “shill” candidate Alex Rodriguez, caught him lying on camera about his identity and revealed he actually lives two counties away in Palm Beach. The story continues as both Alex Rodriguez and the man accused of masterminding his run, a former Republican state senator, have been arrested for campaign finance violations.  

Honorable Mentions ($1,000) 

Mario Ariza, Cindy Goodman and David Fleshler, South Florida Sun Sentinel: As Florida fought COVID-19, the Sun Sentinel looked at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to suppress information that would threaten his popularity or the re-election of President Trump. The reporters found that state health departments were ordered to stop issuing public statements about the pandemic until after the Nov. 3 election, the administration sidelined mainstream scientists and that a major source of scientific disinformation on COVID-19 was from the governor’s own spokesman, who resigned after this series of stories was published. 

Jacqueline Charles, The Miami Herald: Charles’ work, in part, explored the impact of COVID-19 on Miami’s Haitian-American community, where the stigma of the disease aided in its spread. Charles also conducted an exclusive interview with former President Bill Clinton on Haiti, and wrote about the impact of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince on its ten-year anniversary. 

Dan Christensen, the Florida Bulldog: Christensen uncovered Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony’s startling secret – that as a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, he’d been arrested and charged with murder after he shot and killed a man. Gov. Ron DeSantis had rushed to appoint Tony as sheriff after the Parkland massacre, leading to an incomplete background check that did not find the Philadelphia murder nor additional troubles.  

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About Ron and Charlene Esserman 
Ron Esserman was one of the largest and longest-standing auto dealers in South Florida. Ron and Charlene launched and supported a myriad of community programs. They created the Esserman Family Fund for Investigative Journalism at The Miami Foundation as a way for their children — Jim, Susan, Lisa and Laura — to give back to South Florida, together. Finding themselves in a moment when both the local news model is in peril, and the free press is often under attack, the Essermans decided to focus on supporting local investigative and accountability journalism. 

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation 
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org. 

About The Miami Foundation 
The Miami Foundation builds the philanthropic, civic, and leadership backbone for Greater Miami. Since 1967, the Foundation has invested $485 million to strengthen our community with partnerships and contributions from more than 1000 fundholders and 35,000 donors. The Miami Foundation, which currently manages over $350 million in assets, mobilizes donors, nonprofits, leaders, and locals to set a bold vision for our community’s future and to invest in a stronger, more equitable, more resilient Greater Miami. Miamifoundation.org 

Contact: Grace Dearing, Director of Events and Production, Veritas Group, grace.dearing@theveritasway.com, (314) 873-1669 


Photo (top): Crew members go out on their balconies on the Norwegian Encore at PortMiami on Thursday, March 26, 2020. One day after leaving the ship on March 24, a crew member tested positive for COVID-19. Those left on board still cram into a crowded crew mess hall to eat without social distancing, and say they don’t have masks and gloves. David Santiago