'Breathless and Burdened' wins Heywood Broun Award

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A 2013 Center for Public Integrity/ABC News investigation of the federal black lung benefits system, “Breathless and Burdened,” has won the Heywood Broun Award from The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America.

The series, which also won the Pulitzer Prize and other national honors, exposed how some lawyers and doctors hired by the coal industry worked to deny benefits to ailing miners. The project prompted reforms within the Department of Labor and has triggered legislative proposals as well.

“Black lung? Wasn’t that something we first heard about decades ago and that public officials and the medical community have dealt with,” the four-member Broun judging panel wrote. “That was our belief — that is, until reading and viewing this report. Despite legislative reforms beginning in the late ‘60s and oversight by the Labor Department, it seems the coal industry giants have been gaming the system — not only using their hired legal specialists to prolong appeals in black lung benefit cases so that the process ‘outlives’ the victims, they actually co-opted one of our more prestigious hospitals [Johns Hopkins] to aid their scheme.”

Chris Hamby, now with BuzzFeed, was the reporter on the project, which was edited by former CPI staffer Ronnie Greene and Jim Morris, the Center’s managing editor for environment and labor. CPI staffer Chris Zubak-Skees produced the data-driven, interactive graphics.

The award is named for newspaper columnist Heywood Broun, who helped found The Newspaper Guild in 1933.

“We believe our winner truly reflects the Guild founder’s commitment to championing the underdog against the powerful, the uncaring, the corrupt,” the judges said.

The Sacramento Bee and the Washington Post won “Substantial Distinction” awards from the Guild — the Bee for a series about the busing of mentally ill patients out of Nevada and the Post for a series on the exploitation of desperate homeowners by lien buyers.