The Inquirer’s ‘Toxic City’ series wins national investigative reporting award

This story was originally published in The Inquirer with support from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.

“Toxic City: Sick Schools,” a three-part Inquirer investigative series, has won a top national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. The $5,000 Gannett Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism will be presented to The Inquirer at IRE’s June conference in Houston.

“We selected ‘Toxic City: Sick Schools’ for its innovative data collection effort, superb storytelling, and extensive impact,” judges wrote in their citation of journalists Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker, Dylan Purcell, Jessica Griffin, and Garland Potts. “Reporters recruited and trained school staffers to test schools for lead in water, lead paint, mold, silica, and asbestos in areas where reporters were not allowed to go. If accredited labs returned truly alarming test results, journalists notified the school district of the hazards, even though publication was months away.”

The IRE win is the latest recognition for “Toxic City: Sick Schools,” which has been the recipient of several national and state awards this year, including:

Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting, part of the 2019 NLA Awards presented by the American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors. “The Inquirer used every tool in the toolbox to craft these compelling stories that sparked a public dialogue and led the community to demand safe and healthy schools," judges wrote of “Toxic City: Sick Schools.” "The reporting was tenacious and creative, and put its focus where it needed to be — on the kids who were forced to go to school in these conditions.”

2019 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting (finalist), presented by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. The Goldsmith awards recognize investigative journalism that promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government or the practice of politics.

2019 Philip Meyer Award (second place), presented by IRE. Judges said: “'Toxic City: Sick Schools’ demonstrates how scientific testing, when designed properly, can lead to unique and powerful investigations."

2019 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting (finalist), presented by the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism. Judges said: “The Philadelphia Inquirer … used innovative reporting techniques, rigorous scientific methods, and compelling personal stories to show in disturbing detail how thousands of students in Philadelphia schools were exposed to environmental hazards such as asbestos and lead. The project forced school officials to institute reforms, direct more money to cleanup efforts and even to raze the worst offender.”

2019 Keystone Press Awards, presented by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association: first place in investigative reporting in the Division I category (multiday publications with circulation of more than 75,000).

“It is a testament to the reporters’ range that their work this year 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.

Numerous follow-up stories detailed the results of the reporting:

Philadelphia passed a law that for the first time requires public schools to annually certify they are “lead safe,” and be subject to outside inspections, mandatory cleanup deadlines, and potential fines for persistent violations.

Gov. Tom Wolf directed $15.7 million for emergency cleanup to repair shedding lead paint at 40 schools, a project affecting about 29,000 children.

The School District began cleaning up asbestos fibers in seven of the worst schools.

Also, Wolf recently announced an effort to put $100 million into Philadelphia public schools to clean up lead, asbestos and other hazards — a push he specifically said was the result of the series.