April 16, 2014 Liz Borkowski, MPH 2Comment

The list of 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners announced earlier this week includes several journalists whose award-winning work addresses public health issues.

The Boston Globe Staff won the Breaking News prize for “exhaustive and empathetic coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt that enveloped the city, using photography and a range of digital tools to capture the full impact of the tragedy.” Among the many articles in the Globe’s extensive coverage of the April 15, 2013 attack and its aftermath are pieces on the first responders, hospital workers, and therapists who helped bombing victims – and on the drills and planning that prepared hospitals to deal with such an event.

Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity won the Investigative Reporting prize for his “Breathless and Burdened” series, which “examines how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, have helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise and an increasing number of miners are turning to a system that was supposed to help alleviate their suffering.” Hamby conducted a year-long investigation, reviewing thousands of pages of previously hidden legal filings and creating original databases. The Center notes on its website that the series got results:

Following the reports, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program, U.S. senators began crafting reform legislation, and members of Congress asked for a federal investigation. In addition, the Department of Labor announced procedural changes in the federal benefits system that deals with black lung claims, changes that could help miners navigate the complex benefits system.

Eli Saslow of the Washington Post won the Explanatory Journalism prize for “his unsettling and nuanced reporting on the prevalence of food stamps in post-recession America, forcing readers to grapple with issues of poverty and dependency.” The Washington Post summarizes and links to the stories in the series:

Saslow’s explanatory reporting on food stamps spanned six stories. The first begins with a look at Woonsocket, R.I., where one-third of the residents receive food stamps, detailing the astonishing transformation of a despairing town on the day each month when those food stamps arrive. Saslow’s subsequent stories focused on hungry senior citizens in Florida, needy children in rural Tennessee, a Florida Congressman’s push for an historic overhaul of the food stamp program, the effects of a government feeding program in Hidalgo County, TX, and finally, a 41-year-old mother of six in Washington, D.C., who has been on food stamps her entire life.

Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia of the Tampa Bay Times won the Local Reporting prize for “their relentless investigation into the squalid conditions that marked housing for the city’s substantial homeless population, leading to swift reforms.” In a Tampa Bay Times piece about the prize, Peter Jamison explains the work that went to the series and its impact:

The Times’ coverage of Hills­borough County Homeless Recovery represented a joint effort of the newspaper’s Tampa newsroom and its investigative team. Bolstered by sophisticated analysis of government records and vivid, first-hand observation, the stories led to the most significant reform of the county’s social-service programs in 20 years.

… Several ranking county employees resigned or were fired in the wake of the Times’ stories, which eventually led to the permanent dissolution of the Homeless Recovery program and the outsourcing of homeless services to local nonprofit groups.

David Philipps of The Gazette (Colorado Springs) won the National Reporting prize “for expanding the examination of how wounded combat veterans are mistreated, focusing on loss of benefits for life after discharge by the Army for minor offenses, stories augmented with digital tools and stirring congressional action.” Rich Laden writes in The Gazette about the “Other than Honorable” series:

The Gazette published “Other than Honorable” from May 19-21 in print and on gazette.com. The series used Army data to show that the number of soldiers being discharged for misconduct annually had surged to its highest level since 2009 at posts with the most combat troops.

Some of those soldiers who were discharged had come home from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, then committed offenses that likely were linked to those “invisible injuries.” They then were denied benefits because their misconduct resulted in them receiving “other-than-honorable” discharges.

… The series prompted a call for action among some members of Congress. After the publication of “Other than Honorable,” Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Mike Coffman, both of Colorado, introduced amendments to study the surge of troops discharged from the Army for minor misconduct. However, those amendments were stripped out of the National Defense Authorization Act in December.

Author Dan Fagin won the General Nonfiction prize for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, which “deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution.” Longreads has posted an excerpt of the book, and Elizabeth Grossman wrote about it for us last year.

Journalists, news organizations, and book authors and publishers play an essential role in advancing public health. They expose public-health problems while connecting readers with the people who face them, whichoften strengthens the push for change. They can also highlight the important work of the first responders, hospital workers, volunteers, and others who save lives when disasters strike. At a time when many news organizations are shrinking their reporting staffs, it’s wonderful to see so many examples of top-notch work on issues that matter for public health.

Congratulations to all of the Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists, and to their colleagues and organizations. You can view them all here.

2 thoughts on “Pulitzer Prizes and public health

  1. I read that ABC News is taking exception that they were not named as part of the Pulitzer Prize for Chris Hamby’s remarkable reporting. I watched the ABC News piece. They simply reported on Hamby’s findings. I didn’t see much, if any, original reporting. The Center for Public Integrity and Chris Hamby are deserving of the sole recognition. Sorry ABC News.

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