Winners: SEJ 7th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

SEJ board member Jeff Burnside, WTVJ NBC 6 News in Miami (left), and Tim Thornton of The Roanoke Times, 1st-place winner in the category Outstanding Small Market Reporting, Print. Photo: Kate Lutz.


Ethanol production and food shortages, energy and climate, energy and politics, asbestos and toxic trailers, land use/abuse were among the topics explored in the best environmental journalism of 2007-2008, according to judges in the seventh annual contest sponsored by the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Thirty-three entries in 11 categories — including the new Rachel Carson Environment Book Award — had been designated as finalists in the SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment, the world's largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics.

Reporters, editors and journalism educators who served as contest judges pored over 234 entries to choose the finalists representing the best environmental reporting in print and on television, radio, the Internet and in student publications. This year, the judges also chose the best environmental journalism book of 2007.

SEJ announced the winners October 15, 2008, at a gala ceremony in the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center on the first day of SEJ's 18th annual conference. The Rachel Carson Environment Book Award winner received $10,000 and a pair of marble bookends bearing the contest, book and author information. The student entry received $250, a trophy with up to $750 in travel assistance to the annual conference. Each of the other winning entries received $1,000 and a trophy.

And the winners, listed alphabetically by category, are...

Kevin Carmody Award For Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Print


1st Place:
Tim Nostrand, John Brennan, Jeff Pillets, Richard Whitby
The Record of Bergen County, NJ, "Meadowlands for Sale"
Your Tax Dollars Fund Encap Golf Venture
Top Aides OK'd Risky EnCap Deal
More Polluted Than Ever
How EnCap Pair Played Winning Hand

When New Jersey politicians promised to create a sleek, new wonderland of upscale development out of a long-neglected urban wasteland, the staff of The Record in Bergen County began digging. The result was a series of investigative stories that exposed how the EnCap project was an enormous tangle of political favors, giveaways, and secret, taxpayer-backed subsidies for a catastrophically risky venture. The promised cleanup of old landfills never happened; in fact, almost 2.5 million cubic yards of contaminated material were dumped to create the project's base. "Instead of cleaning up the dumps," The Record reported, "EnCap re-created them." Led by senior writers Jeff Pillets and John Brennan, The Record demonstrated the power of relentless and fearless journalism.

2nd Place:
Ben Elgin

BusinessWeek, "Greenwashing Coverage"
Little Green Lies
How "Green" is That Water?
Another Inconvenient Truth

Ben Elgin's Business Week stories, kicked off by his piece "Another Inconvenient Truth," look behind the claims that money can wash away the environmental sin of dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. His timely, smart and dogged investigation over a year revealed in plain, straightforward language some flaws in the unregulated practice of buying credits to offset the effects of carbon emissions. He also pierced the bubble of optimism that going green means going cheap, and showed how some corporations wavered when the going got tough.

3rd Place:
Fiona Harvey, Stephen Fidler, Chris Bryant, Jonathan Wheatley, John Aglionby

The Financial Times, "The Green Gold Rush"
Industry Caught in Carbon 'Smokescreen'
Beware the Carbon Offsetting Cowboys
Offsetting Business Seen as a 'Booming Industry'
CarbonVoucher Has No Contracts In Place
Large Variations in Price of Carbon Dioxide
Financial Gains Raise Questions Over Voluntary Trading
Defra in Storm Over EU Carbon Scheme
Vision of Carbon Rewards Could Prove a Mirage
Producers, Traders Reap Credits Windfall
Seeing the Offsetting Wood From the Trees

Fiona Harvey's series in The Financial Times, "The Green Gold Rush," is globally ambitious in scope and admirably balanced in its view that while problematic, carbon trading can be done according to evidence-based standards, rather than being little more than a feel-good scam. It offers a careful analysis of the inner workings of the carbon trading market, thereby allowing the reader to make an independent assessment.



Outstanding Beat Reporting, Print


1st Place:
Seth Borenstein

The Associated Press, "Climate Changes"
Draft of New International Climate Report Warns of Droughts, Starvation, Disease
'Desperate' Far-Out Ways to Tackle Global Warming
New Climate Report: "Highway to Extinction"
Blame Coal: Texas Leads Carbon Emissions
Rising Seas Likely to Flood U.S. History
'The Arctic Is Screaming' — Summer Sea Ice Could Be Gone in Five Years

The mounting scientific consensus on climate change was clearly the environmental story of 2007. Borenstein's beat reporting helped propel it onto front pages. Borenstein shuttled to Paris and Brussels to break news about findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He then translated those findings into clear, compelling stories that brought home how global warming is affecting billions of people across the globe. Finally, he followed his IPCC coverage with enterprising stories on sea level rise, extinctions, state-by-state carbon emissions and the accelerated melting of the Arctic.

2nd Place:
Peter Aldhous

New Scientist, "New Scientist — International Beat Reporting"
High Value of Whale Meat Costs Minkes in Korea
Exclusive Global Warming Poll: The Buck Stops Here
The Hidden Tragedy of Africa's HIV Crisis
Exotic Pets Pose Risks to Native Species
Could New GM Crops Please the Greens?

Aldhous has an eye out for environmental perils and solutions that test conventional thinking in remote parts of the globe. He writes about a scientist who promotes genetic engineering to produce crops that require less fertilizer. He reveals how the global trade in exotic pets is wreaking ecological havoc. He also travels to Southern Africa, examining how the HIV crisis is killing park rangers and undercutting conservation efforts. Aldhous writes with authority and urgency, and in 2007, he approached his international beat with a strong sense of the possibilities.

3rd Place:
Asher Price

Austin American-Statesman, "Austin Environmental Reporting"
Air Quality Proposal in a Tug of War
A Pioneer in Nurturing Nature
Austin-LCRA Water Deal Has Some Wary
Donors of Land to State: "No Sale"
Christmas Mountains Sale as Rocky as Terrain
The Glow That Dims the Stars
Should Oil Wells Start Running Dry, Austin's 'Peakniks' Will Be Prepared

Thank goodness there are still reporters like Asher Price, who can mix sustained coverage of a local beat with road trips to little-seen treasures. Price learned that Texas was preparing to sell off a remote chunk of state land near Big Bend National Park, called the Christmas Mountains. So he set off to explore "El Despoblado," and came back with a vivid portrait of this rugged region and the people who live there. That the state later decided to drop the land sale is a testament to Price's reporting last year. That reporting included stories about night sky pollution, the life of Lady Bird Johnson and "Peakniks" — Austin residents who are bracing for a world of post-peak oil production."



Outstanding Beat/In-Depth Reporting, Radio


1st Place:
Mark Whitaker

Danger Fuels (not available online)

As radio journalist Mark Whitaker notes in his report, "the people who die unnecessarily from indoor air pollution are those with the least powerful voices in the world." Whitaker's piece gives voice to their stories. The two 26-minute reports are creatively and thoughtfully organized, with descriptive writing that brings detail and color to the scenes. Whitaker deftly incorporates ambient sound and other audio-paintbrush tools to help the listener experience and understand the indoor pollution problem. His compelling and important work captivates from the beginning, and keeps giving reasons to stay with the story for its length.

2nd Place:
Jason Margolis, William Troop, the staff of PRI's The World c/o Bob Ferrante, executive producer

PRI's The World
Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve

Jason Margolis' report takes to the Sierra Gorda, introduces us to the region, gives us a reason to care about the characters and then explains how a theoretical carbon trading system is having real world impacts. Bravo.

3rd Place:
Daniel Grossman

Meltdown: Inside Out

Daniel Grossman reports a global story with global scope. He takes us around the world in an effort to help us understand the confluence of warnings about our environment. His microphone captures both people and the places and his crisp narrative makes the connections this story demands.



Outstanding Beat/In-Depth Reporting, Television


1st Place:
Peter Bull

Center for Investigative Reporting
Hot Politics

This judging panel found "Hot Politics" to be among the most thoughtful, well researched documentaries broadcast in a long time. Hot Politics examines the politics over three presidential administrations and their failure to act to prevent global warming. The judges couldn't stop watching as Frontline showed how Presidents deceived the public and manipulated the media about the greenhouse effect. Hot Politics is simple and clean, yet thorough and far-reaching; managing to reveal a fascinating power play while our earth's atmosphere warms unchecked by the day.

2nd Place:
Dan Rather, Wayne Nelson, Chandra Simon, Resa Matthews, Elyse Kaftan

"Dan Rather Reports: Toxic Trailers" (Available for sale only.)

Dan Rather's "Toxic Trailers" exposed how the federal government failed to protect victims after Hurricane Katrina. Rather discovered and documented how FEMA provided vulnerable families who had nowhere else to go with toxic trailers. Then, adding insult to injury, Rather showed how the federal government repeatedly ignored their complaints about getting sick. This kind of reporting underscores the very reason for journalism: to shine the light on problems our government doesn't want people to know about — and to give our poorest and least able a voice and hope for change. Rather reminds us all that hard news reporting is still the most compelling journalism.

3rd Place:
Vince Patton, Todd Sonflieth, Nick Fisher, Michael Bendixen

Oregon Public Broadcasting, "Oregon Field Guide"
Marmot Dam
Opal Creek
Ice Worms
Toad Crossing

The Oregon Field Guide was like picking up a fishing pole, grabbing a bucket of worms and listening to beautiful stories told by my grandfather all day. To watch these stories was to be there in the moment, experiencing it as it happened. Simply beautiful storytelling. Oregon Field Guide showed us things this panel had never heard of. More important, this program did what documentaries do best. They made a point to stay after everybody else left. By doing that, they were able to report beyond the headlines and were able to prove everybody wrong.



Outstanding Explanatory Reporting, Print


1st Place:
Dennis Dimick, Tim Appenzeller, James Balog, Paul Nicklen, Bill McKibben, Joel Bourne, Robert Clark, Jamie Shreeve, Glenn Oeland, Lynn Addison, Kathy Moran, Laura Lakeway, Neil Shea, Karen Lange, Bill Marr, Elaine Bradley, Abby Tipton, Alice Jones, Mary Jennings, Emily Krieger, Juan Velasco.

National Geographic, "Changing Planet: Where Energy and Climate Collide"
June 2007 The Big Thaw, By Tim Appenzeller, Photos by James Balog
June 2007 Vanishing Sea Ice: Life at the Edge, Text and Photos by Paul Nicklen
October 2007 Confronting Carbon: Carbon's New Math, By Bill McKibben
October 2007 Confronting Carbon: How to Cut Emissions
October 2007 Biofuels: Green Dreams, By Joel Bourne, Photos by Robert Clark
October 2007 Biofuels Compared Interactive
October 2007 Map Supplement: Earth's Changing Climate

An explanatory masterpiece that weaves together many angles on climate-change effects, causes and potential solutions. Excellent and comprehensive reporting with a global perspective gives this topic a breath of fresh air. Most notably in this set of stories, the superlative writing — clear, tight, flowing and authoritative — demonstrates an elegant power rarely reached in explanatory journalism.

2nd Place:
Beth Daley

The Boston Globe,
The 45th Parallel: Warming Where We Live

A brilliant work of localization by a veteran journalist whose thorough reporting in her own region and broad understanding of global climate change bring home to readers the sometimes difficult-to-comprehend connections of this complex issue. Because of her extensive interviews and storytelling skill, Daley gives readers a sense that they're out there with her, listening to people already affected by climate change.

3rd Place:
Jacques Leslie

Mother Jones
The Last Empire: Can the World Survive China's Headlong Rush to Emulate the American Way of Life?

With a writing style that is at times rollicking and evocative and at other times providing lucid explanations of complex connections, Leslie reports on the environmental devastation behind China's economic boom. He alternates thoroughly researched passages — on water pollution, world-leading greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts — with description of the scenes and characters encountered during a wild ride across the countryside with his madcap Chinese driver and guide. The story is hard to put down. Answers the question, "What would you get by crossing Hunter S. Thompson with Bill McKibben and sending him to China?"



Outstanding Online Reporting


1st Place:
Alex Knott, Richard Mullins, Joaquin Sapien, Kevin Bogardus, Anupama Narayanswamy, Ben Welsh, Diane Brozek Fancher, Helena Bengtsson, Peter Newbatt Smith, Leah Rush

The Center for Public Integrity
Wasting Away: Superfund's Toxic Legacy

This reporting team used a range of storytelling techniques that sent the judges clicking immediately, searching in locales for friends and family. In particular, the EPA database and use of a custom video player added elements not seen in any other entry — good storytelling tools in online reporting.

2nd Place:
Mark Neuzil, Ron Way
Ethanol in Minnesota

In Neuzil's entry, judges liked that the slide show was edited to tell a story, instead of just offering several slides on a theme. It was the only entry to do so. Of all the entries, they decided this one had the best display of video and the best video, too. From Seth Gitner, "Kudos to this start-up for tackling serious issues in the state. Keep it up. Sites like yours will take down large newspaper conglomerates, cranking their dead wood editions."

3rd Place:
Michael P. Burnham

Greenwire, "Everglades: Farms, Fuels and the Future of America's Wetland"
Part 1: Energy by the Acre
Part 2: The Next Frontier
Part 3: Great Expectations: Exotic Reed's Role in Bioenergy Plan Raises Questions in Florida

Judges liked the video in Michael Burnham's entry. The visuals and narrative were memorable and compelling.



Outstanding Small Market Reporting, Print


1st Place:
Tim Thornton
The Roanoke Times
Sampling the State of an American Treasure (Only one portion of this entry is available.)

The series provided important information about the dominant form of land conservation in Virginia. It was informative, ground breaking, meticulously researched, extremely well written and accompanied by stunning photographs and excellent graphics. The combination showed exactly how significant that form of conservation is — and how difficult to attain their stated goals. Rather than present a he said-she said of pros and cons, Thornton et al walked you through the mind of a farmer who was proud of his land but fearful of binding the financial hands of his grandchildren — fears which Thornton showed were justified. A great job all around.

2nd Place:
Peter Friederici

High Country News
Facing the Yuck Factor
  • Sidebar: Making an Effluent Market
  • Sidebar: Take Back These Drugs — Please

The immediate reaction from the judges was "Wow! How Yucky is that!" It was immediately followed by the recognition that Friederici had eloquently shown the future face of water conservation: something that is cute when the astronauts do it, but hard to contemplate down here. This well researched, easy to follow story led through the technical and the mundane in what we felt was a superb job of explanatory journalism. The graphics were particularly eye-catching, especially the piña colada in a toilet.

3rd Place:
Kera Abraham

Monterey County Weekly, "Land to Sea: Grappling with Pollution and Resource Management"
Drowning in Plastic
Wasted Wilderness
Sea Change
  • Sidebar: Turning Tide: The Political Climate Is Right for Sea Solutions
  • Sidebar: Worth Their Salt (Title changed from Sea of Knowledge: Ocean Studies Webside Resource Guide)
Sardine Science and Cents

Abraham did an excellent job with two divergent environmental issues — the omnipresent plastic in the aquatic environment, and the destructive environmental practices of marijuana farms on federal park land. The collection of plastic in the aquatic water column throughout the seas, and the gathering over tens of thousands of square miles in an aquatic dump, might seem a bit off the beaten track for a weekly. But Monterey Bay is an aquatic port and what happens in the oceans is vital to the interests of her readers. The information was comprehensive — with sources not limited to a few local academics — and pointed the need for urgent action both locally and nationally. But the clincher was her marijuana story — one she doggedly pursued despite the reticence and hostility of federal drug agencies. The notion that they busted these illegal drug farms — but did nothing to ameliorate the extensive degradation to the local forest environment-was a shame and disgrace. She did a public service in exposing this condition and holding the feet of federal park officials to public fire. It was good, dogged, investigative journalism, accompanied by graphics which would give the average pot smoker nightmares.



Outstanding Story, Radio


1st Place:
Shawn Allee

Chicago Public Radio
Ethanol: Food Versus Fuel?

This piece featured a variety of experts and demonstrated great breadth and insight on the wide-reaching implications of corn ethanol. The topic is now widely broadcast. The fact that Shawn Allee reported on it a year back further demonstrates his strong reporting skills.

2nd Place:
Craig LeMoult

WSHU Public Radio
Stratford Cleanup

This broadcast on an under-reported subject provided great context for asbestos contamination in Stratford. The piece was interesting and shed light on the need for greater citizen awareness of Superfund sites.

3rd Place:
Rebecca Williams

The Environment Report, Michigan Radio
Frogs: A Love Story

Rebecca Williams offers a light-hearted look at the breeding of frogs. While she could have provided greater context for why this is important, her use of humor and music really made for a strong piece worthy of recognition.



Outstanding Story, Television


1st Place:
Paul Rogers, Christopher Bauer, Shirley Gutierrez, Josh Rosen, Sheraz Sadiq

KQED San Francisco
Quest: Condors vs. Lead Bullets

Judges found the Quest piece on the condors to be mesmerizing and haunting with amazing storytelling and excellent use of video.

2nd Place:
Kerry Sanders

NBC News
Arctic Ice Melt for the North Pole (not available online)

The Kerry Sanders piece was amazing. Kerry brings us a portrait that is unforgettable.

3rd Place:
Sidharth Pandey

NDTV 24x7
Mined to Death (not available online)

The investigative report from New Delphi deserves amazing acknowledgment for investigative reporting. This is great storytelling under extreme circumstances. The journalist, Sidharth Pandey, deserves to be recognized!



Outstanding Student Reporting


1st Place:
Gavin Off

Columbia Tribune
Lessons in Leniency (not available online)

"Lessons in Leniency" is a case study in documentary research. Gavin Off waded through thousands of pages of state department records obtained through Missouri's Open Meetings and Records Law, and found the state's Department of Natural Resources had a pattern of levying financial penalties that punished Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or large animal farms for water pollution. And as the cover letter to his article mentioned, Gavin's report influenced Missouri's Legislature to table a bill on behalf of the CAFO industry to take away regulatory authority from counties and give them to the state. Bravo to Gavin for making an impact!

2nd Place:
Kristin Phillips

The Venice of New York (Tainted Lavender: Apathy and Dreams along the Gowanus Canal)

Kristin Phillips did what writers are supposed to do — she spent time with the personalities involved with her story. That time investment made "The Venice of New York" worth reading. Forget the phone. Forget email. Forget Facebook. When a writer tags along with a story's subjects it gives the readers a reason to care and to actually finish reading an article. Phillips' clear style neatly juxtaposed what many post-industrial cities face: booming land values coupled with a toxic legacy.

3rd Place:
Katherine Harmon

Murky Waters (The Big Muddy)

 As standalones, the visuals and the text are great. Together, they are striking. In Murky Waters, Katherine Harmon used a pen, camera and other digital tools to tell the story of how the Missouri River moves 60 million tons of sediment into the Mississippi River, impacting the environment and economies in its path. Katherine grows the story on line by providing an interactive map and audio slideshow. She brilliantly used multimedia tools to make this murky subject crystal clear.



SEJ's Rachel Carson Environment Book Award


1st Place:
Callum Roberts

Island Press
The Unnatural History of the Sea

Callum Roberts has written one of those books that you tell your friends about shortly after you've read it. One could imagine that a history of fishing might make ponderous going, but Roberts is such a skilled writer and he tackles a complicated subject so well that the reader is pulled along easily. In The Unnatural History of the Sea, he entertains us with fascinating tales of explorers, whalers, fishermen and even pirates, and his words bring even the lowliest forms of marine organisms to life. You can't love what you don't know, and Roberts teaches us to know and love the oceans and everything that inhabits them. We decided that this book, with its striking depth and breadth, stands out for its storytelling, its research, and for its potential to bring this important subject to a wide audience. And although Roberts describes the disastrous state of the oceans, from the death of coral reefs to the collapse of Chesapeake Bay, he gives us hope that it's not too late to save them. At the end of this book, he reminds us of the throngs of salmon swimming in Alaskan estuaries, the packs of hammerheads circling the Galapagos and the "mighty boils of tuna" in the Humboldt Current, all "remnants of the seas of long ago." "There are still places in the world . . .," Roberts wrote, "where it is possible to find something of the miraculous in nature." In the spirit of Rachel Carson, who sounded an alarm that drove the world to action, we award Callum Roberts' The Unnatural History of the Sea SEJ's first annual book award.

Honorable Mention:
Alan Weisman

Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin's Press
The World Without Us

The World Without Us had a fascinating premise: What would the Earth be like if all humans disappeared? And Alan Weisman executes it superbly, drawing on science and engineering as a basis for his rich and detailed scenarios without falling into the trap of writing a book that sounds like science fiction. He transports us to exotic places, from Africa's pesticide-laden Lake Naivasha to the collapsing New York subway. And he ponders what happens to our brain waves long after we are gone. His is one of the most imaginative environmental books to come out in some time, and it will reach a wide audience.

Honorable Mention:
Peter Heller

Free Press
The Whale Warriors

The Whale Warriors is a well-written adventure yarn with a strong central character in Paul Watson, the commander-in-chief of the Sea Shepherds. Peter Heller takes extra steps, however, and does his reporting homework in fleshing out the story of Watson's aggressive campaign against Japanese whalers in the southern oceans. Important information on the background of whaling and the politics of fishing for the world's largest mammals are woven into the story.


The Society of Environmental Journalists is an association of more than 1,500 journalists, educators and students. SEJ is run by journalists and for journalists. Its mission is to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental reporting.

SEJ offers unique educational programs and services for working journalists, educators and students, including annual and regional conferences; daily EJToday news service; quarterly SEJournal; biweekly TipSheet and other publications; SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment; members-only listservs; mentoring program; website-based resources; and a lively membership network of journalists and academics.

Previous winners: 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007


Topics on the Beat: