Oakes Award Honors Exceptional Environmental Reporting | Columbia Journalism School
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Oakes Award Honors Exceptional Environmental Reporting

Columbia Journalism School honored the winners and finalists of the 2019 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism on Mon. Sept. 9. 

In the morning, reporters Georgina Gustin and Neela Banerjee from InsideClimate News workshopped their winning series “Harvesting Peril: Extreme Weather and Climate Change on the American Farm” with the Postgraduate Fellows.


Photo: Abi Wright

Later, a ceremony and luncheon was held in the World Room. Dean Steve Coll presented awards to this year’s Oakes winners and finalists.

InsideClimate News Reporter Georgina Gustin spoke on the importance of the topic and how they reported this difficult story:


Photo: Christina Shaman

“We started off with a simple question that had puzzled us for a while: 

Why was this industry, which has so much to lose from climate change, and so much to gain, working against its own best interests? Why was it ignoring an existential problem and the role farms could play in solving it?

We cast a wide net. We talked to hundreds of people. Many were willing to talk to us. Some weren’t. We spent lots of time in archives, trying to understand where the science stood. We read hundreds of studies.

And everything pointed in one direction:  Farming was an essential human enterprise that had gone off the rails because of a massive lobbying machine that was only interested in maintaining the status quo at all costs.  

This lobbying machine held huge political sway from city councils to state legislatures, to Congress and all the way to the White House. 

And it was using the American farmer as a kind of cover to push against climate action at every turn.

Not long ago, few people were talking about agriculture and climate change. But the conversation seems to have turned.  This could just be the self-selection of my Google news feed, but it seems like agriculture and climate change is a topic of the day.  

The Democratic candidates for president are not just talking about climate change; they’ve developed policy platforms that address agriculture in the context of climate change and vice versa. They’re talking about soil carbon and monopolies. Which is kind of amazing.  And encouraging.

There are four names attached to this project:  In addition to mine, Neela Banerjee, Jack Cushman and Paul Horn.

But InsideClimate News is a small operation and when it undertakes a project, every person on the staff becomes a part of it, either directly or indirectly.   So thanks to my colleagues. And to Stacy Feldman, Stacy Morford, Anna Belle Peevey and David Sassoon.

And to our fellow finalists, at the New York Times Magazine, ProPublica and The Desert Sun.  It’s an honor to be in the company of our fellow enemies of the people.

And to the Oakes Award and family for supporting this kind of work.  We’re grateful for this recognition.

We hope there’s a lot more on this subject to come.  We’re just getting started.”

Ian James, Desert Sun water and environment reporter and Oakes Award finalist, spoke about their project, “Poisoned Cities, Deadly Border:”
Photo: Christina Shaman

“We began this project wanting to learn more about the New River. The river flows from Mexicali across the border into California, and it’s long been filled with sewage and toxic pollutants.

Zoë and I wanted to understand why this river remains so badly polluted, and how it’s affecting people who live nearby.

We went door-to-door interviewing people in a neighborhood next to the river. Many people told us the river is making them sick. The stench gives them headaches, and they avoid going outside.

As we investigated further, we realized that this river is one piece of a larger story – about a border city that has grown rapidly into an industrial center for maquiladoras, and about air pollution that is so severe it’s killing people.

We collected data from Mexico and California, examining the levels of air pollution as well as government health statistics. We found a very high rate of people dying from respiratory illnesses. And the statistics show those deaths are on the rise.

As we continued with our reporting, we focused on interviewing people who are affected by the pollution on both sides of the border.

Next to one factory, we met an 11-year-old boy, Luis Raudel Arámbula, who avoids going outside to keep his asthma under control. We met Michelle Dugan, whose sister died of an asthma attack when she was 16.

An asthma doctor told us that with such high levels of air pollution in Mexicali, children are ‘condemned to be sick.’

These were stories of environmental injustice, and we knew these stories were critically important to tell. At a time when there was a great deal of talk in Washington about a migration crisis and building a wall, people in communities on the border were telling us about their real concerns, things like: Will today be another day with hazardous air pollution?

And what can be done to prevent our kids from having asthma attacks?

Investigating the system of oversight, we found that Mexican environmental regulators have the power to issue big fines to polluting factories, but they’ve been failing to act.

We collaborated with a team of colleagues in analyzing the data, producing graphics, and designing the project.

The series has made an impact. Soon after it was published, California’s air board decided to dedicate a staff member to the border region.

In Mexicali, they’ve been installing more air monitors to track pollution.

In Congress and the California Legislature, there have been new efforts to secure funding to clean up the New River.

We’re pleased to see our journalism making a difference by helping to spark change.”

Read more about this year’s Oakes winners and finalists: https://journalism.columbia.edu/2019-Oakes-Award-insideclimatenews