Investigative Reporters and Editors announced this week that two ProPublica Local Reporting Network projects won second and third place for the Philip Meyer Journalism Award. “Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem” by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica won second place, and “Gilded Badges: How New Jersey Cops Profit From Police Unions and Avoid Accountability” by Asbury Park Press and ProPublica won third place. The honor recognizes the best uses of social science methods in journalism.
“Black Snow” by The Palm Beach Post’s Lulu Ramadan, along with Ash Ngu and Maya Miller of ProPublica, gauged air quality in the Glades, an agricultural region in Florida that’s home to cane fields that produce more than half the nation’s cane sugar. For years, residents living amid Florida’s sugar fields have complained about cane burning, a harvesting method that chokes Black and Latino communities with smoke and ash. Yet politically powerful sugar companies and state regulators have reassured residents that the air is safe to breathe. The reporting team found that these official claims were anything but reliable.
The investigation revealed that regulators depended on data from a single monitor, which was unfit to enforce the standards set by the Clean Air Act, and found that officials measured pollution in a way that failed to capture the impact of cane burning. So the reporters did their own air monitoring, installing sensors at homes in the Glades. 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.
Though regulators had done little to address the concerns of Glades residents, the investigation found that officials had taken steps to reduce the smoke burden for the wealthier, whiter communities east of the cane fields. After the team asked questions, a local health agency replaced the unfit monitor, and federal lawmakers pressed to tighten the nation’s pollution standards.
Another story in the series exposed how Florida ignored its own researchers’ recommendations to study the health impact of cane burning. We did our own analysis and found that hospital and emergency room visits for breathing problems among Glades patients spiked during cane-burning season. Elected officials have since called on the state to conduct a formal assessment.
“Gilded Badges” by Asbury Park Press reporter Andrew Ford, along with ProPublica’s Agnes Chang, Jeff Kao and Agnel Philip, is an unprecedented analysis of police union contracts, revealing the pricey perks and protections guaranteed to New Jersey cops.
The reporting team developed a machine-learning workflow to spot similar clauses across hundreds of police union contracts, including provisions that allowed officers to subvert state law, costing taxpayers more than $400,000 in illegal payouts.
Ford brought the story alive with classic shoe-leather reporting, pressing local officials for explanations and prompting state lawmakers to take action. He also secured a crucial interview with a town manager, Vincent Caruso, that illustrated New Jersey’s unique problems. Caruso now struggles to control the cost of his police department’s union contract after he personally banked a $342,000 payout, including unused sick and vacation time, upon his retirement as police chief.
Thanks to a sourcing effort that involved emailing more than 30,000 police officers, Ford was tipped off to a police chief in a 10-person department whose contract guaranteed him a $200,000 salary without working a full 40-hour week. Another officer more than doubled his base salary by working extra-duty jobs — bonus assignments such as monitoring traffic at a road construction site. When Ford asked the department about the officer’s hours, it launched an internal affairs investigation. The story also brought to light an unusual retirement gift for a police chief: a solid gold badge worth more than $7,000.
The team published a methodology outlining in accessible terms how they conducted the advanced computer analysis of police contracts, as well as how they analyzed more than 500 budget documents to determine that towns were liable for at least $492 million in unused sick and vacation time payouts to law enforcement officers. And Ford followed up to show the scope of illegal sick time payments to cops.
Learn more about the Meyer Award here.