Two projects by ProPublica — one in collaboration with The Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight, the other with Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN News, a participating newsroom in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — are among the six finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. The newsrooms were recognized for the series “Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution” and for reporting on juvenile justice in Rutherford County, Tennessee.
With its unprecedented data analysis and interactive map, “Sacrifice Zones” revealed more than 1,000 hot spots of toxic industrial air pollution that the EPA has allowed to spread across America, elevating the cancer risk of more than a fifth of the nation’s population. The series captures how the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to protect the public, not just through weak policies, but through calculated choices recounted on the record by insiders: stifling employee efforts to link risks to specific facilities out of fear of industry backlash and media scrutiny of the agency’s poor enforcement record; quashing a proposal for smokestack monitoring to avoid possible litigation and controversy; and holding off on interventions out of “political sensitivities” while state regulators failed to curb dangerous pollution.
The reporting team named the project “Sacrifice Zones" to describe how some communities bear disproportionate health costs so that consumers can enjoy the products that are manufactured in these overlooked places. Choosing the path of least resistance, polluters wind up in states that prioritize business over public health. The data shows that In predominantly Black census tracts, the estimated cancer risk is more than double that in majority-white tracts. Lylla Younes, Al Shaw, Ava Kofman, Lisa Song, Max Blau, Kiah Collier, Ken Ward Jr., Alyssa Johnson and Maya Miller reported on the series.
Weeks after the series was published, EPA administrator Michael Regan visited several of the communities featured in our reporting, and, in what environmental experts called a radical change in tone, he pledged to ramp up the agency’s enforcement activities and later announced significant air monitoring initiatives. The investigation also led to a groundswell of activism among residents, many of whom said they had been unaware of the dangers they were facing. Empowered with the truth about how pollution impacts their neighborhoods, they lobbied for air monitoring, packed town halls, circulated petitions and started neighborhood health surveys.
In the other investigation named a Goldsmith finalist, Nashville Public Radio reporter Meribah Knight and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong detailed how the juvenile justice system works in Rutherford County, Tennessee. A project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the story sprang from a 2016 incident in which 11 children were arrested in the county for allegedly watching other kids scuffle and not stepping in to stop the fight. When Knight and Armstrong looked into it, they discovered that the children had been arrested for a crime that does not exist.
Knight and Armstrong’s deep-dive investigation exposed the unsettling culture that allowed children in Rutherford County to be illegally arrested and jailed, all under the watch of a judge who was locking children up at the highest rate in the state. In Rutherford County, the juvenile justice system jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court, while the statewide average was just 5%.
Within days of the story’s publication, there was an outcry from community leaders and Tennessee lawmakers. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for a federal civil rights investigation. Middle Tennessee State University, where the judge, Donna Scott Davenport, taught a criminal justice class, announced that she “is no longer affiliated with the University.” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office called on judicial authorities to conduct a review of Davenport, and 11 members of Congress sent a letter asking the Department of Justice to open an investigation into Rutherford’s juvenile justice system. Subsequently, Davenport announced that she would step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.