BGA-Tribune Series on Fatal Fires in Chicago Named Finalist for Top National Online Journalism Award

The Better Government Association and Chicago Tribune investigation into lax oversight by Chicago officials prior to fatal building fires was named a finalist for Excellence in Collaboration and Partnerships in the Online News Association’s 2021 Online Journalism Awards.

The top online news organization in the nation recognized a joint investigation by the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune that revealed Chicago officials were aware of fire safety problems in buildings prior to fires occurring and killing more than 60 people.

The Failures Before the Fires,” a multi-part investigation, was named a finalist for excellence in collaboration and partnerships by the Online News Association. This is the fourth time the BGA has been named a finalist for an Online Journalism Award since 2018.

The series revealed at least 61 men, women and children died in 42 fires where Chicago officials had been previously warned – often repeatedly – of major fire safety issues. Most of the victims were Black. A third were children.

Reporters Madison Hopkins of the BGA and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune detailed the deadly consequences of the systemic downfalls embedded in Chicago’s building enforcement system. They found the city perpetuates a failed system marred by informal rules, outdated records and lax oversight that put the interests of landlords above the safety of tenants. Many of the city’s failures directly contributed to the deaths, Hopkins and Reyes found.

The findings spurred an impact from Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration even before the series was published in April.

After Hopkins and Reyes pressed Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot for answers, her office backed two initiatives she says will improve conditions for Chicago's tenants. The first was a rule change to require landlords to install long-lasting, tamper-proof smoke detectors over the next decade finally passed after nearly a year of inaction. Her office also published a list of problem buildings, targeting them for increased enforcement.

The BGA and Tribune followed up on the investigation by co-publishing a look at how other major cities have enacted stronger reforms in the wake of tragic fires.

In previous years, the ONA named the BGA a finalist for the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award for its series into Chicago’s recycling program, for the Knight Award for Public Service for its series with WBEZ titled “Taking Cover” that examined suburban police shootings, and General Excellence in Online Journalism Award for small newsrooms.

ONA is the world’s largest association of online journalists. ONA’s mission is to inspire innovation and excellence among journalists to better serve the public. Winners will be announced on Oct. 15.