SEJ Annual Award Winners: From Books to Investigations to Explanatory Gems

October 15, 2009

 

By MIKE MANSUR

Pollution near schools, biological invaders, climate change (of course) and the tangled web of the environment and heredity. And those are but a few of the topics detailed by the award-winning entries in the Society of Environmental Journalists' 2008-2009 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ's journalism contest — the world's largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics — recognized 31 entries in 11 categories. Reporters, editors and journalism educators who served as contest judges pored over 187 entries to choose the finalists representing the best environmental reporting in print and on television, radio, the Internet and in student publications. SEJ will honor the winners Oct. 7, 2009, at a gala ceremony in the Concourse Hotel and Governor's Club in Madison, Wis., on the first day of SEJ's 19th annual conference. The Rachel Carson Environment Book Award winner will receive $10,000 and a pair of marble bookends bearing the contest, book and author information. The student winner will receive $250, a crystal trophy and up to $750 in travel assistance to the annual conference. Each of the other winning entries will receive $1,000 and a crystal trophy.

SEJ's Rachel Carson Environment Book Award:
First Place: Andrew Nikiforuk
Co-published by Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation
Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

Nikiforuk paints an alarming picture in northern Alberta, Canada: International oil companies clear cut huge swaths of boreal forest, rake off the boggy soil, scoop up giant shovelfuls of oil sands with the largest machines on earth and use copious amounts of boiling water to separate tarry bitumen from the sand so it can be turned into petroleum for your car in Kansas. The toxic residue that comes off the sands is stored behind gigantic dikes that leak, and downstream people and fish are sick.

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Print
First Place: Blake Morrison and Brad Heath
USA TODAY
The Smokestack Effect

A team from USA TODAY led by reporters Blake Morrison and Brad Heath analyzed millions of government records, led a nationwide canvas of independent air monitoring, and investigated polluting industries near schools in an exhaustive and original reporting project that proved the air outside hundreds of schools was rife with toxic chemicals unknown to parents, school officials and health authorities.

Outstanding Beat, In-Depth Radio
First Place: David Baron
Independent producer for NPR's All Things Considered
Shifting Ground

Baron's pieces exhibited outstanding original research, excellent personal- ization of the stories, excellent use of natural sound and interesting interviews to clarify each story. Exactly what enterprising radio journalism should be. Each piece was entertaining and together formed a series on land-use conflicts not often reported on by the media.

Outstanding Beat/In-depth Reporting, Television
First Place: David Novack, Richard Hankin, Samuel Henriques, Scott Shelley
Sundance Channel/The Green
Burning the Future: Coal in America

A superbly balanced, focused, visual and personal narrative. Crafted solely through the eyes and voices of its subjects, this documentary's power is found in the unflinching effort to offer wide-ranging perspective regarding coal and our nation's energy needs.

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Print
First Place: Kenneth R. Weiss
Los Angles Times
A Warming Sea: Subtle Changes Can Have Profound Impacts

With clear, crisp and engaging prose, Weiss brought home the climate change story like few seasoned journalists have before him. Though his work was limited primarily to oceans, shorelines and Pacific Ocean fishing, Weiss went way beyond futuristic modeling and examined the here and now between southern California and Alaska.

Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Print
First Place: Valerie Brown
Miller-McCune Magazine
Environment Becomes Heredity

In "Environment Becomes Heredity," Valerie Brown deftly explains the thorny issue of whether chemical exposure can trigger multi-generational health problems. Brown employs a solid scientific knowledge, plain English, and humor to reveal how mothers exposed to certain chemicals may be passing genetic time bombs on to their children and grandchildren.

Outstanding Online Reporting
First Place: Kristen Lombardi, Steven Sunshine, Sarah Laskow, David Donald
The Center for Public Integrity
The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal

Most people know that mining coal is a dirty business. Kristen Lombardi, with powerful imagery, offers readers another startling way that the reality of the industry that supplies half of America's power falls far short of its "clean coal" public relations campaign. Lombardi takes readers by the hand to witness the unintended consequences of "longwall mining." In an age of increasingly shallow reports dominating the Internet, it's refreshing — and vital — to see a package so richly reported and engaging. The interactive document library, podcast, map and video add richness to the presentation in ways that demonstrate the power of the online medium.

Outstanding Small-Market Reporting, Print
First Place: Lowell Brown and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
Denton Record-Chronicle
Behind the Shale

The Denton Record-Chronicle's series "Behind the Shale" sets the stan- dard for reporting on environmental issues at small-circulation publications. With striking personal detail, the paper's reporters told a great behind-the-scenes story about how land deals really work in Texas. It's not a pretty sight: example after example showed how the tables are tilted to favor corporations and lawyers over residents and how little government agencies had done to curb abuses.

Outstanding Story, Television, Large Market
First Place: Christopher Bauer, Jenny Oh, Josh Rosen, Laurie Schmidt, Paul Rogers
KQED 9 San Francisco
QUEST: Tagging Pacific Predators

Outstanding visuals, strong interviews and great narration make this KQED story an example of truly great environmental reporting. The Quest team unveiled the story about project TOPP, or Tagging of Pacific Predators, clearly, thoroughly and dramatically. Large sea inhabitants like blue fin tuna, giant leatherback turtles, manta rays and sharks are caught and fitted with electronic tags that relay information via satellite, bringing science to what Warner Chabot, then vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, called "the verge of a virtual information explosion."

Outstanding Story, Television, Small Market
First Place: Jim Parsons, Kendall Cross, Michael Lazorko
WTAE-TV Pittsburgh, PA
Drill Baby Drill

This is the kind of outstanding environmental journalism that every news- room should commit to report. Parsons examined the complicated issue of natural gas drilling and the impact it has on water volume in rivers and creeks and managed to tell the story in a visually compelling and impactful way. His reporting was balanced and complete with eye-opening results. In particular, the line of trucks sucking all of the water out of a river won't easily be forgotten.

Outstanding Student Reporting
First Place: Mimi Abebe, Melissa Drozda, Cassie Fleming, Alex Haueter, Lucas Jameson, Kosuke Koiwai, Aaron Price, Kate Veik
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, NET TV
Ethanol: Salvation or Damnation?

The ethanol report was well-reported and exhaustive. The students took a vital issue in their community and shone a light on a wide variety of angles. That they went far enough to find people in their community affected by ethanol's varied impacts — from farmers to families shopping for tortillas — made this a clear-cut winner.

** From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall 2009 issue.