The Inquirer’s “Toxic City” investigation, which combined innovative and old-fashioned reporting methods to expose unhealthy environmental conditions affecting children, resulting in changes in how schools handle hazards, was a finalist in the 2019 Pulitzer Prize competition, whose winners were announced Monday.
The stories, by reporters Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, and Dylan Purcell, and photographer Jessica Griffin, depicted the ongoing struggle to protect Philadelphia children — many poor and minority — from environmental harm. Reporters examined lead paint in old homes, contaminated soil in former industrial neighborhoods, and unhealthy conditions in public schools that made children sick.
Gabriel Escobar, editor of The Inquirer and vice president of Philadelphia Media Network, called the series “the most complicated story I have ever seen executed.”
Stan Wischnowski, executive editor and senior vice president, praised the journalists for their “unflinching reporting” that “not only exposed a dangerous health hazard, but also laid the groundwork for reforms that will benefit generations of young Philadelphians.” The project, Wischnowski said, “perfectly illustrates the critical importance of strong accountability journalism at the local level.”
All three of the “Toxic City” reporters were winners of Pulitzer Prizes for previous stories.
The series has had profound impact.
As a result of the stories, Philadelphia passed a law that for the first time requires public schools to certify they are “lead safe” every year. Schools must also be subject to outside inspections, potential fines for persistent violations, and mandatory cleanup deadlines. The Philadelphia School District also began cleaning up asbestos fibers in seven of the worst-affected schools.
In addition, Gov. Tom Wolf announced that $15.7 million will be used for emergency cleanup to repair shedding lead paint in 40 schools, which affects about 29,000 children.
Wolf also announced a plan to spend $100 million in Philadelphia public schools to clean up lead, asbestos, and other hazards — an effort, he said, that’s a direct result of the series.
In an innovative effort, the reporters recruited and trained staffers in schools to test buildings for lead in water, lead paint, and other hazards in areas where reporters were not allowed to go.
Reporters also took pains to track down and speak with families whose children were affected by deteriorating school conditions.
The three-part “Toxic City” series has won multiple awards.
“It is a testament to the reporters’ range that their work was honored by contest judges rewarding the best in journalism for widely different reasons: innovation, data analysis, local accountability, and impact,” said James Neff, deputy managing editor for investigations.
Other honors bestowed on “Toxic City” for 2019 include:
The Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism by Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. (IRE).
The Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting, presented by the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors.
The Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting (second place).
The Keystone Press Award for investigative reporting from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Additionally, “Toxic City” was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting from the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism.
“Toxic City” was supported by funding from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the USC Center for Health Journalism, and the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism.