The Pittsburgh Foundation

Sean Hamill and Tereneh Idia win Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism award

A five-month investigation shines light on a nursing home’s failures in keeping residents safe from COVID-19 and a strong voice asks Pittsburgh to grapple with racism

PITTSBURGH, Dec. 21, 2021  A Beaver County nursing home was one of the hardest-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. An eight-part series by Sean Hamill in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took readers on a heartbreaking journey that showed how failures by the home’s for-profit owners and managers led to staffing shortages and at least 82 Covid deaths. Months into the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer led to widespread protests and a renewed focus on the way Black people are treated in society. Tereneh Idia, herself a Black woman, wrote columns for Pittsburgh City Paper that were deeply personal, often offering takes that other media shied away from. Topics included an open letter to Alexis Johnson, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who was taken off of protest coverage because of her race (which PG management denies); asking hard questions such as “what is the appropriate way for Black people to celebrate or protest?” and challenging the notion of Pittsburgh as a most livable city, when several studies have shown how just being Black affects one’s quality of life.

For this reporting, Hamill and Idia were named winners of the 2021 Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism award by a committee of advisors. This is the second time the award has been made and the first time that two journalists will share the honor. 

On winning the Kalson award, Idia said she is honored. Like Kalson, Idia challenges Pittsburgh because she wants it to be better and knows it can be better.

“I so often feel like I’m writing into a void,” said Idia. “Sometimes I feel like what I’m writing doesn’t have an impact. This recognition brings me hope that people are reading my columns and are gaining recognition of issues faced by Black residents.”

One of the committee members said that Idia’s body of work “exemplifies the challenging column work that Sally Kalson did.”

“I think Sally would see a fellow traveler in Tereneh’s work,” said Andy Conte, director, Center for Media Innovation, Point Park University.

For, Sean Hamill, a long-time journalist who started working at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 11 years ago, joining a newsroom that employed someone he admired – Sally Kalson – was exciting. As a reader, Hamill knew her byline, then as a colleague, they became close friends.

“It was an incredible honor to be nominated, but to win? This is the highest honor of my career, which includes national, statewide and local awards,” said Hamill.

His winning work was an investigative series into the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County. Tips from the families of residents along with current and former employees, led to the series that showed how its managers failed to enforce even the most basic infection control standards during the pandemic. The facility is now the subject of investigations by the Pa. Attorney General’s office and the FBI. Hamill downplays any role his stories might have had in bringing the conditions at Brighton to light and while he’s honored by the award, he said the work was heartbreaking and overwhelming.

“I didn’t feel courageous writing these stories,” he said. “It was hard emotionally, reaching out to the families of every person who died at the facility and talking to employees. These stories don’t come together overnight, and I am grateful to work at a paper that gave me room and time to do this story. I do hope Sally is proud of the work we’ve done.”

About the Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Award

Throughout Sally Kalson’s 30-year journalism career, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and columnist put the spotlight on injustice and wrote truth to power. After her death in 2014 from ovarian cancer, family and friends were intent on honoring her legacy by encouraging the bold reporting that marked her career.

In 2019, they established the Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Award Program at The Pittsburgh Foundation, which reaches statewide to identify a broadcast, print or online media journalist whose work embodies what Kalson was known for: “fearlessness, fortitude and excellence in taking on issues of our time,” according to the nomination materials. The Kalson Award is meant to support writing “that doesn’t necessarily reflect a popular or dominating political view,” said Ed Feinstein, Kalson’s husband for 26 years. “This program is our small effort to encourage people to look for and report stories that go against the grain, despite that they implicate powerful interests.”

Awardees are selected by an advisory committee that includes Foundation staff, journalists, academics and media experts:

  • Andy Conte, director, Center for Media Innovation, Point Park University.
  • Mila Sanina, forever executive director, Public Source.
  • James Steele, investigative reporter, Barlett and Steele.
  • Amy Ginensky, First Amendment attorney, Pepper Hamilton.
  • Tony Norman, columnist, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  • Ed Feinstein, Kalson’s widower, and a partner with the Pittsburgh-based law firm of Feinstein Doyle Payne and Kravec.

Read about the first awardee, Helen Ubiñas, here.