The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has named an investigative series by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica as the winner of its 2022 Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism. The series, titled “Black Snow,” explored a controversial agricultural burning practice employed by the U.S. sugar cane industry and illuminated the health risks that the resulting smoke and ash pose for communities in South Florida’s Glades region, where about a third of the population lives in poverty.
The series was the product of an 18-month investigation, during which reporters worked with community residents and air quality experts to create a network of air quality sensors to monitor levels of harmful particulate matter. “It is an example of truly tenacious reporting against significant obstacles,” judges said of the award-winning series.
“This series had scope. The graphics were superb. It had great impact,” the judges added, noting that the reporting spurred state authorities to replace a key air monitor in the region that had been flagged as unfit to enforce federal clean air standards.
The reporting and data collection for the “Black Snow” series were led by Palm Beach Post investigative reporter Lulu Ramadan (now with the Seattle Times). Ramadan collaborated on the effort with reporter, designer, and developer Ash Ngu, engagement reporter Maya Miller, and video journalist Nadia Sussman, all of ProPublica. The Palm Beach Post’s Hannah Morse also contributed reporting. The series topped a field of more than a hundred entries from newspapers, broadcasters, and digital publications around the country.
“The Black Snow series exemplifies why local science reporting is so important in today’s society,” said Knight Science Journalism Program director Deborah Blum. “Like so many of this year’s great entries, it cast a much-needed light on a problem that was affecting people’s lives and on the failure of authorities to protect communities in their care.”
Also on the short list of finalists for the 2022 McElheny Award were: “The Lobster Trap,” a series by The Boston Globe and The Portland Press Herald that took readers into the world of a New England fishing community grappling with the forces of climate change; “The Greenland Connection,” a feature by The Charleston Post and Courier that examined the link between melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and flooding in South Carolina’s Lowcountry; “The Covid Imbalance,” a series by The Mercury News and East Bay Times that looked at how flawed public health policies impacted the Bay Area’s Latino communities during the early days of the pandemic; and “Hot Days,” a collaboration involving The California and Texas Newsroom collaboratives that probed an overlooked epidemic of heat-related death and injury among outdoor workers.
Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public-health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. The winning team will receive a $5,000 prize. Due to ongoing concerns raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Knight Science Journalism Program will not hold an in-person award ceremony this year.
The Knight Science Journalism Program extends a special thanks to the 2022 McElheny Award jurors: Aleszu Bajak (Senior Data Reporter, USA Today); Mariette DiChristina (Dean and Professor of the Practice in Journalism, Boston University College of Communication); Robert Lee Hotz (President, Alicia Patterson Foundation); Jonathan Fahey (Health and Science Editor, The Associated Press); and Amina Khan (Science Editor, NPR). The Program also extends warm appreciation to the award’s screeners: Jessica Camille Aguirre, Nina Berman, Lauren Gravitz, Karen Hao, Ferris Jabr, Asha Stuart, and Emily Willingham.
The McElheny Award is made possible by generous support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation.
The 2022 Victor K. McElheny Award honorees
Black Snow, by Lulu Ramadan, Ash Ngu, Maya Miller, Nadia Sussman, and Hannah Morse of the Palm Beach Post and ProPublica.
- “The Smoke Comes Every Year. Sugar Companies Say the Air Is Safe.”
- “‘A complete failure of the state’: Authorities didn’t heed researchers’ calls to study health effects of burning sugar cane”
- “After years of complaints, Florida improves pollution monitoring near burning sugar cane fields”
The Lobster Trap, by Penelope Overton, Jenna Russell, and David Abel of The Boston Globe and The Portland Press Herald.
- “The Lobster Trap“
- “Protests and Prayers“
- “One of Connecticut’s last lobstermen sticks with it, despite his near empty hauls“
The Greenland Connection, by Tony Bartelme and Lauren Petracca of the Charleston Post and Courier.
- “The Greenland Connection“
- “Flood Woman vs Climate Doom Part 2: The Greenland Connection“
- “Photo essay: Connecting Charleston and Greenland“
Hot Days: Heat’s Mounting Death Toll on Workers in The U.S., by staff of Columbia Journalism Investigations, The California Newsroom, The Texas Newsroom, NPR, and Public Health Watch.
- “Higher Temperatures And Less Oversight Mean Workers Are At A Growing Risk In The Climate Emergency“
- “Texas Workers Are Dying in the Summer Heat, And Companies Aren’t Being Held Accountable“
- “California Firefighters Keep Getting Injured During Training. Some Have Died.“
The Covid Imbalance: How the Bay Area Failed Latinos in Covid Crisis, by Leonardo Castañeda, Fiona Kelliher, David DeBolt, Harriet Blair Rowan, and Randy Vazquez of Mercury News and East Bay Times.