Karen Gadbois, co-founder of The Lens and a staff writer, is the 2012 recipient of the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Ethics in Journalism Award, the organization announced today.

Previous winners include writers for The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Entries are considered each year, but the organization withholds the award in years where no worthy entry is nominated.

Karen Gadbois

Gadbois is being honored for her reporting that revealed the police record of a Good Samaritan who was killed while trying to stop a carjacking in Algiers in January. Departing from a frequently criticized practice, the New Orleans Police Department did not release the drug-related arrests and convictions of Henry “Mike” Ainsworth, who was a volunteer for NOPD’s 8th District station.

Gadbois’ reporting revealed a lack of consistency at best from the police and a double-standard at worst.

In order to point this out, Gadbois had to expose Ainsworth’s past crimes, which were unrelated to his heroic efforts to help a neighbor. And she knew that such reporting wouldn’t be popular.

“We knew we would be criticized for printing his arrests and convictions, but we couldn’t just write that he had a record and not be honest with our readers about what was in that record,” Gadbois said. “The point was to draw attention to what the NOPD was doing — or not doing.”

Within minutes of publication, readers lashed out at The Lens and Gadbois. Commenters on the story said such work was “shameful,” “disgusting” and “disrespectful.”

Shortly after, though, NOPD released Ainsworth’s record. A spokeswoman said the department always intended to release the information.

The Times-Picayune noted that police did so after Gadbois story was published. Other news outlets examined the practice that this incident highlighted. The Associated Press wrote a story on the controversial policy that ran in publications nationwide, including the Huffington Post.

They told a national audience what many in New Orleans were familiar with: The NOPD at times released police records of homicide victims at impromptu news conferences at the crime scene. Many family members of victims were particularly upset when police released records of arrests that didn’t lead to convictions, or offenses dating back a decade or more.

Critics said it had the effect of blaming the victim and compounded the grief of family members. Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said it showed that most homicide victims were at one time engaged in, or suspected of, criminal activity, and that law-abiding citizens should have little fear of being killed.

Just two weeks before Ainsworth was killed, Serpas defended the practice in front of a skeptical City Council committee meeting.

Serpas told the committee that most homicides in the city were “black males killing black males,” and said releasing their arrest records helps the community have an informed discussion about homicides. Ainsworth was white.

In the days after Ainsworth’s killing, Gadbois discussed the story on air with our partners at FOX8-TV, and local radio talk-show hosts picked up the issue. Pressure from concerned citizens continued to build, and within a week of Ainsworth’s death, NOPD changed its policy.

The Lens is grateful for the award, but the staff believes that helping to educate and inform the community about such important policy issues — particularly difficult ones — is more gratifying than being honored by peers, said Steve Beatty, managing editor of The Lens.

“We didn’t relish the idea of putting Mr. Ainsworth’s record out there, and it wasn’t something we did lightly,” Beatty said. “But after weighing all the factors, we thought it was important to publish all the facts and spotlight this NOPD practice.

“Our hearts go out to Mr. Ainsworth’s family, and to all the other families of victims who endured such scrutiny of their loved ones,” Beatty said.

The Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists recommends journalists to the organization’s Executive Committee, which makes the award. The Ethics Committee recommended Gadbois’ work because it “offered a powerful and unique perspective in upholding the highest ethical standards,” according to a news release from the organization.

Gadbois and Ariella Cohen founded The Lens in 2009 as New Orleans’ first nonprofit newsroom dedicated to educating, engaging and informing the community through public-interest journalism. Cohen is now the executive editor at Next American City and serves on The Lens’ board of directors.