Two ProPublica projects — one in collaboration with The Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight, the other with Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN News, a participating newsroom in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — are among the six Goldsmith finalists. Prize for Investigative Reporting. Newsrooms were honored for the series “Sacrificed Zones: Mapping Carcinogenic Industrial Air Pollution” and for their reporting on juvenile justice in Rutherford County, Tennessee.
With its unprecedented data analysis and interactive map, “Sacrifice Zones” has revealed more than 1,000 hotspots of toxic industrial air pollution that the EPA has allowed to spread across America, increasing the risk of cancer from more than a fifth of the country’s population. The series shows how the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to protect the public, not just through weak policies, but through calculated choices told in the filing by insiders: stifling employee efforts to bind risks at specific facilities for fear of industry backlash and media scrutiny. the agency’s poor enforcement record; cancel a stack monitoring proposal to avoid potential litigation and controversy; and delaying interventions out of “political sensitivity” as state regulators have failed to reduce dangerous pollution.
The reporting team named the project “Sacrifice Areas” to describe how some communities bear disproportionate healthcare costs so that consumers can enjoy products made in these neglected places. By choosing the path of least resistance, polluters end up in states that prioritize business over public health. The data shows that in predominantly black census tracts, the estimated cancer risk is more than double that of majority white tracts. Lylla Younes, Al Shaw, Ava Kofman, Lisa Song, Max Blau, Kiah Collier, Ken Ward Jr., Alyssa Johnson, and Maya Miller reported on the series.
Weeks after the series was published, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited several of the communities featured in our stories and, in what environmental experts called a dramatic shift in tone, he pledged to step up the agency’s law enforcement activities and later announced major air surveillance initiatives. . The investigation also sparked a wave of activism among locals, many of whom said they were unaware of the dangers they faced. Armed with the truth about the impact of pollution on their neighborhoods, they lobbied for air monitoring, packed town halls, circulated petitions, and launched neighborhood health surveys.
In the other investigation named Goldsmith’s finalist, Nashville Public Radio reporter Meribah Knight and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong detailed how the juvenile justice system works in Rutherford County, Tennessee. . A project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the story grew out of a 2016 incident in which 11 children were arrested in the county for allegedly watching other children get into fights and failing to intervene to stop the fight. When Knight and Armstrong looked into the matter, they discovered that the children had been arrested for a crime that does not exist.
Knight and Armstrong’s in-depth investigation uncovered the troubling culture that allowed Rutherford County children to be illegally arrested and imprisoned, all under the watch of a judge who locked children up at the highest rate of State. In Rutherford County, the juvenile justice system imprisoned children in 48% of cases transferred to juvenile court, while the statewide average was just 5%.
Days after the story was published, there was an outcry from community leaders and lawmakers in Tennessee. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has called for a federal civil rights investigation. Middle Tennessee State University, where Judge Donna Scott Davenport taught a criminal justice course, has announced that she “is no longer affiliated with the university.” Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s office called on law enforcement to conduct a review of Davenport, and 11 members of Congress sent a letter asking the Justice Department to open an investigation into the juvenile justice system of Rutherford. Subsequently, Davenport announced that she would step down in 2022 rather than run for re-election.