ProPublica Wins 2022 John B. Oakes Award for Climate Gap Series | Columbia Journalism School

ProPublica Wins 2022 John B. Oakes Award for Climate Gap Series

Honoring Distinguished Reporting on the Environment

ProPublica, with partners TIME, Univision Noticias and Truly CA KQED, has won the 2022 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism for their series “Postcard From Thermal: Surviving the Climate Gap in Eastern Coachella Valley.” 

The reporters used multimedia tools, video and text to present an urgent, compelling case study on what is known as the “climate gap”: the disproportionate toll that climate change is taking on the lives of people of color and the poor. Nowhere is that gap more dramatic than in the perfectly named town of Thermal, California, which is simultaneously a playground for the rich and a nearly uninhabitable home for farmworkers who must contend with dust storms, arsenic-laced water and some of the hottest temperatures on the continent. This project told the big picture through one immigrant family’s plight. It provoked specific reform, with that family and others in Thermal being moved into far better housing.

The two Finalists for the 2022 Oakes Award are: The Intercept for “Tracking the Invisible Killer: Trump EPA Invited Companies to Revise Pollution Records of a Potent Carcinogen” and The Washington Post for “FEMA's Disasters."

More about the 2022 Oakes Finalists:

  • The Intercept’s Sharon Lerner has produced a sprawling investigation into ethylene oxide, a colorless, odorless, all-but-invisible gas that can kill. In an exhaustive story and video, Lerner takes readers from Lake County, Illinois, to Port Neches, Texas, where she documented deliberate wrongdoing by multiple perpetrators: chemical companies that make the agent used in sterilizing plants. Even more shockingly, she exposed the EPA, which was supposed to protect the public but didn’t.
  • In a tour-de-force of investigative reporting from The Washington Post, reporters Hannah Dreier and Andrew Ba Tran revealed that as requests for individual assistance rose over the past decade, FEMA’s rate of approval plummeted from 63% to just 13% — and that discriminatory regulations denied applications from Black-majority communities at twice the rate of others. The reporters showed in powerful detail how FEMA’s failings devastated lives.

The 2022 Oakes Award winners and finalists will be honored on Weds., Sept. 21 at Columbia Journalism School. The ProPublica team will receive a $5,000 prize, and each finalist will receive a $1,500 prize.

Given annually for news reporting that makes an exceptional contribution to the public’s understanding of environmental issues, the Oakes Award was founded in 1993 by family, friends and colleagues of John B. Oakes (1913-2001). Oakes was an environmental journalism pioneer and an editorial writer for The New York Times.

2022 John B. Oakes Prize Winner and Finalist Citations

The winning story profiles one immigrant family’s housing struggle on the front lines of the climate crisis. Photo: Jennifer Pons for ProPublica

WINNER: ProPublica with partners TIME, Univision Noticias and Truly CA KQED

“Postcard From Thermal: Surviving the Climate Gap in Eastern Coachella Valley”

Journalists: Elizabeth Weil, Mauricio Rodriguez Pons, Nadia Sussman and Mollie Simon

Judges’ Citation: This project is a triumph of modern storytelling – using multimedia tools, documentary video and digital text to present an urgent, compelling case study on what is known as the “climate gap”: the disproportionate toll that climate change is taking on the lives of people of color and the poor. Nowhere is that gap more dramatic than in the perfectly named town of Thermal, California, which is simultaneously a playground for the rich – complete with a track for luxury race cars, surrounded by wave pools and multimillion-dollar estates – and a nearly uninhabitable home for farmworkers who must contend with dust storms, arsenic-laced water and some of the hottest temperatures on the continent. This project succeeded both in telling the big picture of this environmental injustice through the small picture of one immigrant family’s plight in Thermal. It succeeded in provoking specific reform, with that family and others being moved into far better housing. This is environmental journalism at its finest.

Children are seen at a playground across from the TCP Group plant that exploded in late 2019 in Port Neches, Texas, on Feb. 4, 2021. Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

FINALIST: The Intercept Tracking the Invisible Killer: Trump EPA Invited Companies to Revise Pollution Records of a Potent Carcinogen

Journalist: Sharon Lerner

Judges’ Citation: The Intercept has produced a sprawling investigation into ethylene oxide, a colorless, odorless, all-but-invisible gas that can kill. In an exhaustive story and video, reporter Sharon Lerner takes readers from Lake County, Illinois, to Port Neches, Texas, where she documents deliberate wrongdoing by multiple perpetrators: chemical companies that make the agent used in sterilizing plants, and, even more shockingly, by the EPA, which was supposed to protect the public but didn’t — especially if that public happened to be a lower-income community of color. Throughout the investigation, amid discussion of science, geography and data, Lerner never loses sight of the people at the center of it all — the victims whose lives have been upended, and sometimes ended, by innocently living in the vicinity of a chemical many knew nothing about.

Briana Bouyer, seen at her damaged home in Greensboro, which was hit by the tornado in March, was denied FEMA disaster relief because she could not prove she owned her property. Photo: Michael S. Williamson for The Washington Post

FINALIST: The Washington Post FEMA's Disasters

Journalists: Hannah Dreier and Andrew Ba Tran

Judges’ Citation: The Washington Post five-part series “FEMA’s Disasters” combined regulatory forensics with heart-wrenching narratives and jaw-dropping data findings to show how the federal agency Americans depend on during disasters is failing them in the midst of the climate crisis. In a tour-de-force of investigative reporting, Hannah Dreier and Andrew Ba Tran revealed that, as requests for individual assistance rose over the past decade, FEMA’s rate of approval plummeted from 63% to just 13% — and that discriminatory regulations denied applications from Black-majority communities at twice the rate of others. They showed in powerful detail how FEMA’s failings devastated lives. The judges commend the journalists and The Washington Post for a series that compelled agency reforms, legislation and an executive order to bring about meaningful change.

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About Columbia Journalism School
For more than a century, the school has been preparing journalists in programs that stress academic rigor, ethics, journalistic inquiry and professional practice. Founded with a gift from Joseph Pulitzer, the school opened its doors in 1912 and offers Masters of Science, Masters of Arts, a joint Master of Science degree in Computer Science and Journalism, and Doctor of Philosophy in Communications. It houses the Columbia Journalism Review, the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. The school also administers many of the leading journalism awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes, the John Chancellor Award, the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, Dart Awards for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award, and the Mike Berger Award.

Contact:

Abi Wright
Executive Director, Professional Prizes
212.854.5047
awright@columbia.edu