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ProPublica and Partners Nominated for Four National Magazine Awards

A groundbreaking report mapping toxic air pollution and an investigation that sparked national outrage were among the nominations.

The American Society of Magazine Editors has named ProPublica a finalist for four of its 2022 National Magazine Awards (also known as the Ellies), which honor excellence in print and digital journalism. Two of the four finalists are projects with partner media organizations. The finalists were recognized in the categories of video, feature writing, profile writing and public interest.

ProPublica, TIME, Truly CA and Univision Noticias are nominated in the video category for “Unlivable Oasis.” The film, by Maurico Rodríguez Pons and former ProPublica writer Elizabeth Weil, gave the reins to a Latino director to explore a case study in how the growing climate crisis magnifies inequality, including in housing, the first line of defense against an increasingly inhospitable environment.

The film is a dystopian portrait of Thermal, a Southern California town that’s both a playground for the rich and home to farmworkers who live in uninsulated, sun-baked trailers in some of the hottest farmland in the world. Excessive heat, arsenic-laced water and dust storms worsen conditions in an immigrant family’s already-dilapidated trailer, the only kind of housing they can afford with agricultural wages. Less than 30 miles northwest of their home, affluent residents cool themselves in shimmering pools and on lush, green golf courses. This is what social scientists call the “climate gap”: “the sometimes hidden and often-unequal impact climate change will have on people of color and the poor.”

The documentary powerfully visualized the climate gap using meticulously composed diptychs capturing the inequities between the haves and have-nots. This, in combination with impeccable cinematography, sweeping aerial shots and intimate verité footage of the family, created an immersive experience that helps viewers to more fully understand the climate gap.

A multimedia report by Nashville Public Radio reporter Meribah Knight and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong was nominated in the feature writing category. Their investigation detailed how the juvenile justice system works in Rutherford County, Tennessee.

The story, which is a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, sprang from a 2016 incident in which 11 children were arrested in a Tennessee 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 were arrested for a crime that does not exist.

Knight and Armstrong’s deep-dive investigation exposed the unsettling culture, which had existed for decades, 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 — 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 will step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.

The Child Care Industry Was Collapsing. Mrs. Jackie Bet Everything on an Impossible Dream to Save It,” by Lizzie Presser was nominated in the profile writing category. In the pandemic’s first year, child care providers were pushed to the edge. Before the American child care crisis began to dominate the conversation and inspire landmark reforms, Lizzie Presser made an early and prescient decision: She gained the trust of, and unfettered access to, a day care provider whose business was on the brink of collapse, as were her body and mind. Much has been made of the unsustainable economy that traps child care providers — families can’t afford to pay the true cost of this critical service, leaving workers underpaid and businesses struggling to survive — but Presser’s reporting probed deeper to illuminate exactly how this unviable situation unfolds, revealing each blow with hard-earned specificity and an accounting of the human toll.

Three articles from ProPublica’s unprecedented analysis of hot spots of cancer-causing toxic air, which modeled pollution near industrial facilities across the nation, were nominated in the public interest category. “Poison in the Air,” by Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw and Lisa Song, revealed how the Environmental Protection Agency allows polluters to turn neighborhoods into “sacrifice zones,” where residents breathe carcinogens. In “The Most Detailed Map of Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution in the U.S.,” by Al Shaw and Lylla Younes, reporters used advanced data processing software and a modeling tool developed by the EPA to map the spread of carcinogenic chemicals from thousands of sources of hazardous air pollution across the country between 2014 and 2018. The result is an easy-to-use map that offers an unparalleled view of how toxic air blooms around the fence lines of industrial facilities and spreads into nearby neighborhoods. In “The Dirty Secret of America’s Clean Dishes,” by Max Blau and Lylla Younes, reporters pieced together the supply chain — and the environmental impact — of the world’s largest chemical maker, BASF, which produces ingredients for some of America’s most popular products, including soaps, surface cleaners and dishwasher detergent. According to ProPublica’s analysis, emissions from BASF’s U.S. plants elevate cancer risks for an estimated 1.5 million people.

Since ProPublica’s series of investigations into industrial air pollution published, the EPA has announced sweeping changes and specific reforms, including more robust air monitoring and increased scrutiny of industrial polluters. Last week, lawmakers cited ProPublica’s work in “Sacrifice Zones” and another investigation — “Black Snow,” conducted with Local Reporting Network partner The Palm Beach Post — when introducing legislation that would require the EPA to create a pilot program for air monitoring in communities overburdened with air pollution.

See a list of all National Magazine Awards finalists.

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