February 2, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Communities affected by contaminated air, water and soil, workers retaliated for complaining about safety issues, and vulnerable groups abused by organizations charged with protecting them, are topics at the heart of public health. This week they are especially recognized by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as finalists for its Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Four of the six teams of journalists dug deep and reported on issues intrinsically linked to public health.

The Center for Public Integrity’s Jim Morris, Chris Hamby and others, joined forces with Howard Berkes, Elizabeth Shogren and others to produce “Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities” a series of articles based on a previously undisclosed EPA internal “watch list.” The reporters took us into the homes, yards, and town squares of Muscatine, Iowa; Hayden, Arizona; Ponca City, Oklahoma; Chanute, Kansas, and other places to explain how much is known about the serious health hazards in these locales but how little has been done to address them. Our own Lizzie Grossman followed-up on their work to examine how “Chronic polluters are also chronic workplace safety violators.”

Mark Greenblatt, David Raziq and Keith Tomshe of KHOU-TV in Houston produced a five-part, one-hour feature on radiation-contaminated drinking water sources used by Texas residents, and the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) systematic practice of underreporting the hazard to the US EPA and the public. (Our colleague David Ozonoff, MD, MPH of Boston University School of Public Health is featured in the series, and explains to viewers how alpha radiation behaves in the body.) The KHOU reporters exposed documents showing that senior Texas politicians, including Governor Rick Perry and Senate-candidate David Dewhurst, knew of the TCEQ’s deception.

The New York Times‘ Danny Hakim and Russell Buettner produced “Abused and Used” examined the State of New York’s programs to care for the developmentally disabled. Their investigation revealed chronic overmedication of individuals, gross mismanagement of group homes and employees, and more than 1,200 developmentally-disabled individuals in the care of the State who died in the last 10 years for reasons other than natural causes.

ABC News 20/20’s investigation “Peace Corps: A Trust Betrayed,” reported on violent deaths among active volunteers and the agencies “silent treatment” toward the victims’ families. The victims included individuals who provided evidence of sexual abuse and rape within the local Peace Corps community, but were not protected for their whisteblowing.

Congratulations to these modern-day muckrakers for shining a light on these public health issues. The Goldman Prize for Investigative Reporting

“is intended to recognize and encourage journalism which promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, the making of public policy, or the practice of politics by disclosing excessive secrecy, impropriety and mismanagement, or instances of particularly commendable government performance.”

The award winner will be announced on March 6.

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