National journalism awards have already sniffed out some exceptional journalism that no doubt will be top Pulitzer contenders: The Arizona Republic’s exceptional work investigating VA hospitals, The New York Times’ coverage of Ebola in Western Africa and The St Louis Post-Dispatch’s coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting and protests all have rightfully been cited as among 2014’s best journalism. But let me tell you about some other reporting in print and online that deserves your attention.
- One of my favorite investigations of 2014 was “Subsidized Squalor” by the Center for Investigative Reporting and a host of partners. I loved the project from the first sentence, “There are 4,055 public housing agencies across the U.S., and we’ve spent the past year writing about one of the worst.” People living in Richmond, California’s public housing lived with rodents and sewage CIR created a unit-by-unit interactive graphic so you could see what was wrong in each unit. The website includes a clock showing how many days people have been living in the apartments that inspectors said should not be inhabitable.
- Another partnership project in 2014 was put together by ProPublica and The Lens. Losing Ground found, Louisiana loses “a football field of land every 48 minutes — 16 square miles a year — due to climate change, drilling and dredging for oil and gas and levees on the Mississippi River. “Homes, gas production and the state’s entire seafood industry are in peril,” the report said.
- The tiny Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon has been widely recognized for its investigation into how the state’s First Lady parlayed her former job into big bucks consulting gigs. It would be cool to see a weekly crack the Pulitzer list.
- The Texas Tribune’s Shale Life is another of 2014’s exceptionally well-produced multimedia projects that focuses on a vital local issue: How a new surge in oil drilling is behind a surge in all sorts of problems. The Tribune found that everything from an increase in chemical spills, traffic accidents and a shortage of manpower for essential jobs are related to the incease in Texas oil and gas production.
- The New York Times performed tremendous public service with a series of stories called “Fatal Flaws.” The investigation “exposed missteps and delays by automakers and federal safety regulators in responding to deadly defects in automobiles during what has become a record year for recalls — more than 60 million in the United States in 2014.” These were not minor defects. They included faulty ignition switches and airbags that would not deploy.
- The Times also produced a startling investigation called “Courting Favor” that looks at how state attorneys general get courted by special interests who want favored treatment in exchange for campaign contributions. I love that the original story has been followed by seven more pieces that keep the pressure on.
- One of the best long-form reads of the year has to be Texas Monthly’s The Murders at the Lake. It was a triple murder near Waco in 1982 that confounds police to this day. The case ended with arrests, convictions, then a court overturned a conviction while one of those convicted was sent to his death. Was the wrong man executed? The story looks through the eyes of five people who know this case well, including two cops and a journalist. The story was woven together from dozens of interviews, mountains of court files and depositions.
- And one of the most interesting stories of 2014 was the Center for Investigative Reporting’s “Dark Side of the Strawberry.” The stories focus on a chemical you likely have never heard of, 1,3-D. That chemical replaced methyl bromide, a pesticide blamed for harming the ozone. A banned chemical that had been widely used because it worked so well. The investigation includes a stop-motion animation that shows “the modern strawberry” complete with chemical additives.
The CIR sums up the story this way:
But in the years since, 1,3-D has become an increasingly crucial chemical for the people who claimed they’d be hit hardest by the methyl bromide ban – California’s strawberry growers.
The transition underscores the modern strawberry industry’s chemical dependence: Growers rely on heavy amounts of some of the most dangerous pesticides – a class called fumigants – to deliver the fruit year-round at an affordable price for consumers. Because strawberries like to grow where people like to live, in the perpetual spring of coastal California, growers often use the pesticides near schools, homes and businesses.
The health and environmental problems that come with those pesticides have threatened the foundation of a $2.6 billion industry that provides Americans with 9 out of 10 strawberries they eat.
Aside from the movie and music industries, journalist may give more awards to each other than any other business. And you know what, if awards encourages more great work, if it glorifies journalists who plow through documents, plant themselves where others won’t dare go, if it encourage journalists to ask nosy questions for the right reasons, if it stiffens the backbones of bosses and owners who take the heat when the phone rings, then fine. Let’s celebrate.