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2013 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism

Patricia CallahanSam RoeMichael HawthornePatricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne

“Playing with Fire”
Chicago Tribune

Patricia Callahan, a Tribune investigative reporter since 2004, has shared two Pulitzer Prizes. She launched the Chicago Tribune investigation that proved the nation’s top consumer product safety agency, in its myopic and docile approach to regulation, failed to protect children. The series, which prompted the recall of more than 1 million baby products, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting and spurred Congress to pass the largest overhaul of consumer product safety laws in a generation. Before joining the Tribune, Callahan was a beat reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she covered the decline of the newspaper industry and fraud at medical companies. Previously, Callahan was a reporter on the Denver Post team covering the Columbine High School shootings. The Post won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its Columbine coverage. She graduated with highest distinction from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 1993. As a Henry Luce Scholar in Bangkok, she investigated the trafficking of children for prostitution in Thailand. Now 41, Callahan lives in suburban Chicago with her husband and three children.

Sam Roe, 52, has been a Chicago Tribune investigative reporter since 2000. Previously, he was a projects reporter at the Toledo Blade. He has written series involving public health, the environment and corporate wrongdoing. His stories have sparked new federal laws, product recalls, congressional hearings, and health and safety reforms, including a U.S. ban on the export of mercury. Articles on the hazards of the metal beryllium prompted the federal government to create a compensation program for injured Cold War weapons workers, an effort that has paid out more than $8 billion. Roe was part of the reporting team that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and he was a Pulitzer finalist in that category in 2011 and 2000. A graduate of Kent State and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, he teaches investigative reporting at Columbia College Chicago. He lives in suburban Chicago with his wife and 9-year-old twin boys.

Michael Hawthorne is an award-winning reporter who writes about the environment for the Chicago Tribune. He has written extensively about nagging pollution problems plaguing the Great Lakes and health threats posed by air pollution, mercury and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. His coverage of BP’s plans to dump more refinery waste into Lake Michigan led to a deluge of public opposition and forced the oil company to back off. In 2006, he won the National Press Club’s consumer journalism award and the Online News Association’s public service award for stories about the federal government’s failure to protect people from mercury-contaminated fish. He also has won the AP Managing Editors public service award and the Washington Monthly Journalism Award  for his investigative work. Hawthorne previously worked as the environment reporter for The Columbus Dispatch and as a state government reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer and The News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill. He began his journalism career as a reporter for The News-Journal of Daytona Beach, Fla. Born in Gibson City, Ill., Hawthorne graduated from Bradley University in 1988 with a journalism degree. He received a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois at Springfield.


For years, manufacturers have laced foam cushions of upholstered furniture with toxic flame retardants, even though research shows that these chemicals — linked to cancer, developmental problems and impaired fertility — don’t slow fires and are accumulating in the bodies of adults and children and in the environment.

The Chicago Tribune revealed how the chemical and tobacco industries waged a deceptive, decades-long campaign to promote the use of flame-retardant furniture and downplay the hazards.

How did these useless and potentially toxic chemicals become legally required for all furniture sold in California, and therefore the norm for all furniture in the U.S.? Our winners found that flame retardants got a surprising push from the tobacco industry. Cigarettes are a major cause of furniture fires, and the industry was under pressure to make its product safer, but instead of designing a self-extinguishing cigarette, the industry pushed to have America’s sofas, loveseats, and breastfeeding pillows impregnated with chemicals that supposedly made them less likely to burst into flame.

As a result of the series, flame retardants became one of the top public health issues of the year. The U.S. Senate held two hearings, the Environmental Protection Agency began a broad investigation and an industry front group exposed by the newspaper folded. Most significantly, California announced it would scrap the rule responsible for flame retardants' presence in most U.S. homes, meaning manufacturers may soon stop adding the chemicals to furniture and baby products.

These reporters dug deep to expose a pattern of deception and prompt change on a vital health issue.