The Association of Health Care Journalists announced on Friday that ProPublica won three first-place honors in its Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism.
“Unchecked: America's Broken Food Safety System” won in the consumer/feature category. Bernice Yeung, Michael Grabell, Irena Hwang, Mollie Simon, Andrea Suozzo, Ash Ngu and Maryam Jameel contributed to the project. Following a 2020 investigation by Yeung and Grabell on COVID-19 outbreaks in meatpacking plants, the reporters began combing through Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outbreak reports and came across a drug-resistant salmonella strain that had run rampant through the country’s chicken supply, affecting the entire industry.
The team analyzed genomic sequencing data to show that, while the CDC had closed its salmonella investigation in 2019, the dangerous strain of salmonella continued to be found frequently by USDA inspectors in chicken samples, where it sickened tens of thousands of people. The unchecked spread of this strain is emblematic of America’s baffling and largely toothless food safety system, which is ill-equipped to protect consumers or rebuff industry influence.
ProPublica didn’t stop at documenting the food-safety system’s problems. The reporting team also gave consumers a tool to make themselves more informed and safer going forward. Over several months, they assembled federal inspection data to build “Chicken Checker,” an interactive database that allows users to look up the salmonella records of the plants that produced their chicken or turkey.
“Invisible Threat: Carbon Monoxide's Unchecked Toll,” a collaboration between ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News, won in the investigative category. Perla Trevizo, Lexi Churchill, Ren Larson, Mike Hixenbaugh and Suzy Khimm contributed to the series. Carbon monoxide deaths have followed nearly every severe storm for decades, but the responsibility for preventing such poisonings is generally viewed as a personal one, absolving governments and companies from fault and from making policy changes that could limit what experts say are preventable deaths. This narrative repeated itself when a massive winter storm hit Texas in February 2021, unleashing the worst carbon monoxide catastrophe in recent U.S. history. The investigation exposed failures at every level of government to protect residents from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The team revealed years of systemic regulatory neglect that compounded to create unprecedented harm for vulnerable families in Texas and other states. Through an exhaustive manual review of state laws and policies, the reporters found that Texas was one of just six states with no requirement for carbon monoxide detectors in homes. The reporters delved into policies for Texas’ 254 counties to show how the lack of a statewide regulation left a confusing patchwork of local codes, with uneven protections for residents and limited enforcement.
The team then turned its attention to the federal government’s role, demonstrating how regulations that would force generator manufacturers to reduce the machines’ carbon monoxide emissions have been stymied under a process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves, resulting in limited safety upgrades and continued deaths. In the end, the series not only exposed grave failures by government entities but also offered a policy road map to address this increasingly urgent threat.
"Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution,” a collaboration with The Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight, won in the public health category. Lylla Younes, Al Shaw, Ava Kofman, Lisa Song, Max Blau, Kiah Collier, Ken Ward Jr., Alyssa Johnson, Maya Miller, Lucas Waldron and Kathleen Flynn contributed to the series. The investigation and groundbreaking data analysis revealed that industrial air pollution has elevated cancer risks for a fifth of Americans — including a quarter-million people exposed to dangers that the Environmental Protection Agency deems unacceptable.
In industrial neighborhoods, residents had long complained they were being sickened by the pollution coming out of smokestacks while corporate spokespeople argued the air was safe to breathe. The EPA’s go-to public data didn’t clarify the debate; it gave a diffuse view of emissions by census tract, obscuring the impact on those living closest to facilities. Using a more detailed EPA database in a way no one else had, ProPublica built a first-of-its-kind interactive map that identified more than 1,000 hot spots. The map allows anyone who plugs in their address to see how much toxic air pollution is reaching their neighborhood, which industrial facilities are to blame, what hazardous chemicals the emissions contain and how much a lifetime of exposure would elevate their estimated risk is of getting cancer, something the EPA had long shied away from doing.
The project led to the kind of impact that environmental advocates said they had been working for decades to achieve. Within weeks of the investigation, 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.
In addition, “The Broken Front Line” by Ava Kofman won third place for health policy and “Black Snow: Big Sugar's Burning Problem,” a ProPublica Local Reporting Network project with The Palm Beach Post by Lulu Ramadan, Ash Ngu and Maya Miller, won third place in the business category.
See a list of all the Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism winners here.