A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper investigative reporting, Cheryl Phillips, Steve Miletich, Ken Armstrong

By Quill

In a groundbreaking series about the Transportation Security Administration, “Airport Insecurity,” The Seattle Times discovered an agency with frightening holes, frequent security breaches and a work force plagued by high turnover, poor training and sinking morale.

The TSA was supposed to be the fix.

But more than 2 1/2 years after it was created, the Transportation Security Administration itself needs a fix.

As Sept. 11, 2001, grows more distant, airline passengers complain more about long lines than feeling vulnerable. Yet lax security and low morale seep through the federal agency responsible for protecting them.

The team of investigative reporters, Cheryl Phillips, Steve Miletich and Ken Armstrong, spent nearly a year exploring the ins and outs of TSA. They used six U.S. airports as representative models for TSA, pulling together the names of some 4,000 employees.

“It didn’t take long before the TSA learned about our project and tried to hinder it by promising to fire anybody who spoke to us,” said managing editor David Boardman.

But the team conducted more than 120 in-depth interviews.

“(One of the most difficult aspects was) using an approach that relied heavily on anonymous sources, while simultaneously ensuring that we corroborated anything and everything we used from that reporting,” said Armstrong. “We relied heavily on documents – memos, pay stubs, disciplinary letters, whatever – to backup the stories we were being told by screeners.”

In stories striking for their similarity – whether their airport is in Los Angles, Houston, Boston or elsewhere – employees describe a workplace defined by intimidation, pettiness and marching orders that fluctuate by supervisor, shift and airport.

After “Airport Insecurity” ran, the TSA removed four top managers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In Houston, TSA forced top managers at Hobby Airport to resign. Employees said that conditions have improved, but reforms are still being put into place.

“There are numerous stories that still occur every day at airports across the country,” said Phillips. “I hear from screeners every month, sometimes every week. Some screeners are being harassed, others say they are still being pressured to quickly move luggage through instead of actually screening it.”

“We admire this effort for its thoroughness, enterprise, newsworthiness and impact,” said the judges. “Simply, it heightens awareness. It puts the government on notice that its approach to airport security lacks common sense.”