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ProPublica and Local Reporting Partners Are Pulitzer Prize Finalists

A series with Nashville Public Radio was nominated in the feature writing category; our work with The Palm Beach Post was nominated for local reporting.

The Pulitzer Board announced Monday that two projects of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network were Pulitzer Prize finalists. “Juvenile Injustice, Tennessee” by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN News was a finalist for the feature writing prize. “Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem” by ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post was a finalist in the local reporting category.

The designations are ProPublica’s 14th and 15th Pulitzer finalists in 14 years of publishing, and the second and third time that a Local Reporting Network partner has been recognized as a finalist since the program began publishing its local accountability stories in 2018. ProPublica has won six Pulitzer Prizes and a Local Reporting Network partner has won one.

Co-reported by ProPublica’s Ken Armstrong and WPLN News’ Meribah Knight, “Juvenile Injustice, Tennessee” exposed the unsettling system, spanning decades, in which children in Tennessee’s Rutherford County were illegally arrested and jailed, all under the watch of a judge who was locking up kids at the highest rate in the state. ProPublica deputy data editor Hannah Fresques and research reporter Alex Mierjeski also contributed to the investigation.

The Tennessee project stemmed from a 2016 incident in which police officers arrested four Black girls at an elementary school in Murfreesboro, a small city outside of Nashville. Two of the girls, the youngest just 8, were handcuffed. All four, along with seven other kids arrested in the days after, were accused of watching some young boys scuffle and not stepping in to stop it. The incident stuck with Knight, who had just moved to Tennessee and was working on other projects at the time. She revisited the story in 2021, in partnership with Armstrong and the Local Reporting Network, a program that gave them a full year to dig in. They soon found there was so much more to the story.

More than 50 Freedom of Information Act requests later, the reporters illuminated the systemic issues that allowed those arrests — and subsequent jailings of four of the children — to happen. The series’ first story showed that the children were arrested for “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” a crime that does not exist, in an investigation led by a police officer who had been disciplined 37 times. The arrests happened in a system overseen by a judge who failed the bar exam four times, in a county where the written policy for detaining kids violated Tennessee law yet escaped the notice of state inspectors year after year.

The reporters also looked beyond the one case, and they discovered that Rutherford County jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court, compared with the statewide average of 5%. Some children were held in solitary confinement, a practice a federal judge called inhumane. A follow-up investigation, co-reported with Fresques, showed that the county was jailing a disproportionately high percentage of Black children.

Donna Scott Davenport, the juvenile court judge in Rutherford County largely responsible for these outcomes, says that kids must face consequences. But her dictum rarely applied to adults in charge. In 2017, a federal court found that the county was illegally jailing kids, and in 2021, the county settled a class-action lawsuit on behalf of jailed children for about $6 million. But Davenport was still on the bench, and the jail’s director still held her position while the juvenile justice system continued to grow.

The investigation spurred immediate demands for reform. Eleven members of Congress wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling for the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. Tennessee’s governor called for a review of Davenport. Middle Tennessee State University cut ties with Davenport, who had worked there for years as an adjunct instructor, and state legislators introduced a bill to remove her, citing an “appalling abuse of power.” In January, Davenport announced she would retire this year rather than run for reelection.

In the “Black Snow” series, Palm Beach Post reporter Lulu Ramadan, along with ProPublica engagement reporter Maya Miller, news applications developer Ash Ngu and video reporter Nadia Sussman, showed how regulators allow the sugar industry to burn crops at the expense of communities of color in Florida’s heartland, despite internal research and complaints from residents.

For years, residents living amid Florida’s sugar fields have complained about cane burning, a harvesting method that helps produce more than half of America’s cane sugar but chokes Black and Hispanic communities, known as the Glades, with smoke and ash. They call it “black snow.” All the while, politically powerful sugar companies and state regulators have reassured residents that the air is healthy to breathe.

Over 18 months, the Post and ProPublica tested that proposition, producing a first-of-its-kind analysis of pollution linked to cane burning. The reporters interviewed dozens of people living in the Glades and obtained hundreds of public records from environmental and public health agencies. The team also did its own air monitoring, consulting with six experts in air quality and public health from universities across the country and installing sensors at homes in one of the state’s most underserved communities. The readings showed repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state had authorized cane burning. These short-term spikes often reached four times the average pollution levels in the area — enough that experts said they posed health risks.

The investigation found that state regulators depended on data from a single monitor to track air quality across the sugar-growing region, despite telling their federal counterparts that the monitor was unfit to determine whether the air met standards set under the Clean Air Act. And though regulators had done little to address Glades residents’ concerns, they had already banned burning when the wind blew toward the wealthier, whiter communities east of the cane fields.

Another story in the series exposed how Florida ignored its own researchers’ recommendations to study the health impact of cane burning. So the reporters did their own analysis, using eight years of hospitalization data to examine health trends. They found hospital and emergency room visits for breathing problems among Glades patients spiked during cane-burning season.

After publication, U.S. Sugar mounted a public relations campaign in the Glades to discredit ProPublica, which it called an “activist, agenda-driven, online-only website.” The company maintained that burning was safe and could not be stopped without significant economic impact. So Sussman traveled to Brazil, the world’s largest sugar producer, where São Paulo officials largely phased out burning years ago after residents there voiced concerns similar to those of Floridians today. She made a short documentary explaining how the industry switched to another harvesting method, one that has paid off for companies in terms of profit and for the public in terms of health. Notably, Brazilian officials in government and industry told ProPublica that their solutions were transferable to Florida.

Now the project is reshaping the political debate in Florida, where both political parties have long supported the sugar industry. In December, Democratic state lawmakers introduced legislation to roll back a law that protects farmers from lawsuits over air pollution. And U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who served as governor from 2007 to 2011 and is now a contender for the post again, has pledged to push for “a shift away from burning and towards a cleaner harvesting process” if elected governor this year. He called for action in response to reporting by the Post and ProPublica, saying “we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the air pollution and health hazards this community is experiencing.”

Later this year, academic researchers will launch a study of the effects of cane burning in the Glades. The project, funded by a $218,000 grant from NASA, was spurred by the “Black Snow” investigation. It will be the most comprehensive study of its kind in the region.

Additionally, incoming ProPublica reporter Corey Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work with the Tampa Bay Times that revealed how Florida’s only lead smelter endangered hundreds of workers and polluted the surrounding community; ProPublica reporter Eli Hager was a finalist for his work with The Marshall Project and NPR about government agencies taking money owed to foster children; and Madison Hopkins, a participating journalist in the Local Reporting Network, won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for a series with the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune on deadly fire safety issues in Chicago apartment buildings.

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