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Three ProPublica Projects Nominated for NIHCM Awards

Three projects by ProPublica and partners are finalists for the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation’s Journalism Awards. “Sacrifice Zones” and “Black Snow” are finalists for the NIHCM Digital Media Award and “HeartWare” is a finalist for the General Circulation Journalism Award.

The series “Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution” by ProPublica, in collaboration with The Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight, is a finalist for the Digital Media Award. 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. 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.

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. ProPublica figured out how to zoom in. Using a more detailed EPA database in a way no one else had, the team 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.

Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem” by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica is also a finalist for the Digital Media Award. Palm Beach Post reporter Lulu Ramadan, along with Ash Ngu and Maya Miller of ProPublica, gauged air quality in the Glades, a region in Florida where more than half the nation’s cane sugar is grown. 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 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 air 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.

HeartWare: Deadly Malfunctions, FDA Inaction and Vulnerable Patients” by ProPublica reporter Neil Bedi, along with engagement reporters Maryam Jameel and Maya Miller, is a finalist for the General Circulation Journalism Award. The series examined the HeartWare Ventricular Assist Device, a mechanical heart pump that thousands of desperate people with severe cardiac failure had surgically embedded in their hearts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the device maker, Medtronic, agreed to take the unusual step of removing the HeartWare device from the market in June 2021, noting that a competing pump had better patient outcomes. Bedi knew that wasn’t the full story.

Bedi conducted multiple analyses and found that the FDA had received thousands of reports of suspicious deaths and injuries that had been linked to the HeartWare device. He then sifted through more than 1,000 anonymized reports to identify horrific deaths caused by sudden device malfunctions. Among the cases he found: a teenage patient who vomited blood as his mother struggled to restart a defective pump and a patient whose heart tissue was left charred after the device short-circuited and overheated.

Bedi also found that the government knew about problems with the device for years. Enshrined in page after page of documents written by federal inspectors were warnings of potentially deadly device problems that patients were never told about. After the stories were published, ProPublica heard from people across the country who were thankful to know the full truth behind the HeartWare device. Medtronic also updated its website and reached out to patients to offer expanded financial assistance for costs like transportation and co-pays.

See a list of all the NIHCM Digital Media Award and General Circulation Journalism Award finalists.

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