The USA TODAY reporting team worked with academic researchers to pool government data on industrial polluters near 127,800 schools. What they found was incredible -- in thousands of schools, the models indicated that the air outside could be at least twice as toxic as the air in nearby neighborhoods. In some cases, the difference reached 10 times higher.
Blake Morrison of USA Today.
Brad Heath of USA Today.
Good investigative journalism uncovers a wrongdoing, researches it, and reports on it. Ideally, questions are answered, wrongs are righted, and the public takes note. Blake Morrison and Brad Heath exhibited those qualities and more in their piece for USA Today: “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools.”
The reporting team worked with academic researchers to pool government data on industrial polluters near 127,800 schools. What they found was incredible -- in thousands of schools, the models indicated that the air outside could be at least twice as toxic as the air in nearby neighborhoods. In some cases, the difference reached 10 times higher.
Morrison and Heath also discovered cases where regulators knew there were problems, but never informed parents or school officials. The research was also integrated into an online, interactive database, allowing people to look up schools and get information on the air quality nearby. The methodologies for the notoriously difficult assessment of toxic exposure were carefully described in the companion Web site for the series, and a list of frequently asked questions was added to help readers understand how to interpret and act upon the findings.
Government officials, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, lauded the work. Boxer called it “a shocking story of neglect…” adding, “If USA TODAY can do this, certainly the EPA can do this.” The series also prompted EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to initiate a new program to determine whether industrial pollution impacts air quality outside of the nation’s schools.
USA TODAY took science-based journalism to a new level when it merged government data on industrial polluters with the locations of 127,800 public, private and parochial schools. Teaming with academic researchers, reporters Blake Morrison and Brad Heath applied the government’s own long-neglected statistical model to this huge database and ranked the schools according to their modeled risk for air pollution. The newspaper then validated the findings by dispatching 30 reporters to directly monitor the air at 95 schools in 30 states. Their discovery of elevated hazards outside 64 of the schools drew quick responses and local efforts to protect school children across the nation. An interactive web site allowed readers to check the results at their own schools.
Morrison and Heath humanized the issue with examples of children suffering from pollution-related disease, and were careful to point out the value and limitations of this sort of analysis. The impact of the series was demonstrated by the response of Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the new administration, who promised quick federal action to follow up the newspaper investigation with air testing at more schools.
The scale and ambition of this series, as well as its quick effect in raising awareness of the potential dangers to schoolchildren make "The Smokestack Effect" a worthy winner of the 2009 Grantham Prize.
Deputy Enterprise Editor, Investigative Reporter
Blake Morrison has worked at USA TODAY, the nation’s largest newspaper, since October 1999. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he began covering aviation security and broke stories on problems with the air marshal program, airport checkpoints and cargo security. He now reports and helps direct investigations and projects. Before joining USA TODAY, Morrison worked at the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press. There he worked as an investigative reporter and was part of the team that covered a cheating scandal involving the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team. Morrison teaches reporting and writing courses at the University of Maryland. He has guest lectured at Louisiana State University and the University of Wisconsin and he co-wrote the memoir How to Cook Your Daughter.
Brad Heath specializes in data-driven enterprise stories at USA TODAY and has covered subjects ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to aviation safety. Before joining USA TODAY, he was an enterprise writer for The Detroit News and was the investigative reporter for the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, NY.