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News & Observer journalists win Sunshine Award for investigative reporting at UNC

The North Carolina Open Government Coalition awarded a Sunshine Award to News & Observer reporters Dan Kane, Kate Murphy, and Martha Quillin for a series of investigative stories highlighting transparency problems at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Sunshine Award for Journalism recognizes three stories that focus on misuse of public funds, conflicts of interest, and pressure from private donors at UNC-Chapel Hill. Each story focuses on a unique aspect of transparency and public accountability, rounding out a summer of dogged investigative journalism at the state’s flagship university.

In July 2021, Kane and Murphy published a series of reports showing that the North Carolina Council of Internal Auditing found evidence of misuse of public funds and university vehicles under the leadership of police chief David L. Perry. The audits, which were almost completely redacted by the university when first produced, showed a pattern of mismanagement within the university police department. David Perry resigned after the reports surfaced.

Around the same time, Kane and Murphy conducted an investigation into UNC vice chancellor David Routh’s outside employment, which raised questions among experts regarding Routh’s potential conflicts of interest. The reporting drew attention from lawmakers, ethics experts, public officials and citizens.

In August 2021, Murphy and Quillin published a story on an investigation into a document leak that revealed a previously confidential contract between the university, the UNC School of Journalism and Media Foundation, and the Hussman Foundation, a major donor to the School of Journalism and Media, which now bears Hussman’s name. The story followed a summer of turmoil as reports surfaced that Walter E. Hussman, Jr. questioned the School of Journalism and Media’s efforts to hire and grant tenure to award-winning journalist and MacArthur Grant recipient Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones ultimately took a faculty position at Howard University.

“It’s an honor to be recognized for our work with this award,” said Kate Murphy in an e-mail statement. “Local journalists play a critical role in uncovering issues at public institutions, like UNC-Chapel Hill, that affect people across the state. For us, the goal is always to find the truth, hold leaders accountable and explain why this story matters.”

Throughout their reporting, Kane, Murphy and Quillin used the public records law to highlight governance issues at the university and reveal aspects of the public records law that often go overlooked.

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