Journalism awards matter, but real impact counts more

Pulitzer aside, this work will enable thousands of coal miners with black lung to finally receive the benefits they deserve

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Last week, Center for Public Integrity reporter Chris Hamby was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting. This was a thrilling moment for the Center, but also a testament to the power of complex, sophisticated reporting and the impact that it can produce

Like most journalists, I’ve always dreamed of being associated with winning a Pulitzer, and I can hardly believe this dream has finally come true. Ever since I was a student in journalism school in the 1960s, and later when I started working on newspapers in the 1970s, I had always wanted to have some part in a successful Pulitzer entry.

My journalism career took me into public radio for 27 years, both at NPR and Minnesota Public Radio-American Public Media. There are no Pulitzers for broadcasting, so I assumed this particular dream would never be fulfilled. Then, a couple years after I moved to The Center for Public Integrity in 2007, the Pulitzer Board started allowing entries in digital text, along with print. Every year since, the Center has entered its best investigative work as a digital news organization.

The Pulitzer’s Investigative Reporting category honors projects built from discoveries of original, groundbreaking material. Chris Hamby’s year-long shoe-leather reporting and deep analysis for our black lung project clearly fit this criterion.

His winning, 25,000-word series, “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” examines how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise. Chris gathered more than 1,500 medical records and created a database to accompany his devastating narrative.

That database of doctors’ rulings in black lung cases revealed, for the first time, how doctors at Johns Hopkins Medicine systematically denied seeing black lung even when other professionals and evidence showed it existed. You can read what Chris wrote for the background to this story here.

Obviously, it takes a team of dedicated professionals to produce this level of work. “Breathless and Burdened” was edited by Ronnie Greene and Jim Morris, and included interactive graphics created by Chris Zubak-Skees, with digital production by Sarah Whitmire. They all are due congratulations.

The project also won the Edgar A. Poe Award from the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in collaboration with Brian Ross, Matthew Mosk and Rhonda Schwartz of ABC News.

“Breathless and Burdened” is just the latest in a series of award-winning projects to arise from the Center's workers' rights reporting team. Founded in January 2010 and led by senior reporter and managing editor Morris, the unit has produced ground-breaking investigative work on subjects such as the international marketing of deadly asbestos; worker and public safety hazards at the nation's aging oil refineries; and regulatory lapses that put temporary workers, coal miners, contract laborers and others at risk. The Center is among the very few U.S. news outlets committed to in-depth, investigative reporting on worker health and safety and economic justice issues.

Chris Hamby came to the Center four years ago as a paid intern. I was happy to hire him after his internship and he has been a stellar reporter on stories about the environment and workers’ rights. Unfortunately, the Center had to say goodbye to Hamby last week. As I had known for many weeks, he decided before the Pulitzers were announced to join a new investigative unit being formed at BuzzFeed. The Center will miss Chris deeply, and I wish him well.

I am the first to admit that overall there are probably too many awards and prizes in journalism, but the Pulitzers are a different matter. Writing under the headline, “What’s the Point of the Pulitzers?” New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, a former Pulitzer Board member, wrote that this award is still relevant and is worth more than journalistic self-congratulations because of what it inspires.  

“The Pulitzers encourage journalists and news organizations to strive to do their best,” she wrote, “The prizes provide a benchmark, a focal point and an inspiration for outstanding work. They also give important and lasting recognition to work that took courage or put journalists in harm’s way.”

I agree with her completely. And I am incredibly proud of the Center’s recognition based on Chris Hamby’s meaningful investigation. More important, however, is the fact that this work will enable thousands of coal miners with black lung to finally receive the benefits they deserve.

Until next week,

Bill 

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