Winners: SEJ 11th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

The Society of Environmental Journalists is proud to present the winners of the 2011-2012 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. SEJ’s journalism contest is the world’s largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics.

The dedicated volunteers who served as this year’s contest judges selected 19 first-, second- and third-place winners and two honorable mentions from the 224 entries. These remarkable stories represent the best environmental reporting in print and on television, radio and the Internet.

SEJ honors this year’s winners Wednesday, October 17, 2012, at a presentation ceremony at the Overton Hotel and Conference Center in Lubbock, Texas, in conjunction with SEJ’s 22nd Annual Conference. First-place winners receive $500 and a trophy. Second- and third-place winners receive a certificate.


SEJ's 2012 Awards for Reporting on the Environment are... 

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market
Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Small Market
Outstanding Photography
Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market
Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market
Outstanding Feature Story
Rachel Carson Environment Book Award

List of judges and committee members.


Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market


First Place


“Disappearing River”
Radio Free Asia
Ma Man Keung, Mandy Lee, Bi Zimu, Shiny Li

From the judges: This award acknowledges the undercover work of reporters who put themselves at great personal and professional risk to expose extreme pollution in China’s Dong River. The series of video reports revealed the consequences of China's manufacturing zeal, uncovered health threats to millions of people, and seemed to have jarred a response from Chinese officials. Furthermore, the team reported in multiple languages and with limited resources. This is the kind of gutsy reporting that can begin to turn a country toward environmental protection.


Second Place


“Elwha: The Grand Experiment”
The Seattle Times
Lynda Mapes, Steve Ringman, Genevieve Alvarez

From the judges: The Seattle Times team enlarged a regional story into one with national environmental implications, but it is how they did it that won our accolades. This report on the decommissioning of two hydroelectric dams is a model of explanatory multimedia reporting by a newspaper. The result was complex yet accessible, ambitious and balanced, and superbly executed.


Third Place

“Aging Nukes”
The Associated Press
Jeff Donn

From the judges: Associated Press and Jeff Donn deserve credit for a four-part story that exposed a chilling pattern of relaxed safety standards at the nation's nuclear plants. The AP team compiled a mountain of interviews and research, created its own population database where none existed, and played a role in alerting lawmakers to an overly cozy relationship between the nuclear industry and its regulators.


Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Small Market


First Place


“Citizens of the Shale”
Denton Record-Chronicle
Pennie Freeland Boyett, Lowell Brown, Dawn Cobb, Beth Francesco Currie, George Getschow, LaJuana Hale, Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, Sarah Perry, Spike Johnson, and Elizabeth Smith

From the judges: This in-depth series of articles is the result of a strong commitment to quality journalism by a small newspaper, its reporters and editors, in the face of what could have been major push-back by both area residents and businesses. It’s just the type of reporting that would have had the late Kevin Carmody stomping in his cowboy boots. The Texas legislature adopted new rules requiring public disclosure of fracking chemicals and water use soon after the series ran.

From the SEJ Awards Committee: These stories were recognized for their outstanding quality by the judging committee. SEJ must note that the newspaper failed to disclose the appearance of a conflict of interests by one of its reporters when the series was published, which we believe it should have done. As an organization, we want to make sure the record reflects this, even as we recognize the paper for its excellent reporting.

The newspaper declined the award.


Second Place


“Niobrara Oil Play”
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Shauna Stephenson

From the judges: This comprehensive effort by a small regional newspaper explores an issue that has literally cropped up on the horizon for their readers. The story required significant travel and an understanding of how a new and complex industrial technology would affect a largely rural community.


Third Place


“Downwind: Big Ag at Your Door”
100 Reporters,
Clare Howard

From the judges: This is an important agribusiness story that is well told. In a perennially troubled genus of environment reporting, this investigative effort underwritten by a new-age journalism organization hits the mark, incorporating an understanding of Big Ag, organic agriculture and the science of farming.


Outstanding Photography


First Place


“Flavor of Danger”
Jerry Redfern

From the judges: These compelling images tell the story of a hidden legacy of the American bombing campaign in the Vietnam War, which four decades later still endangers thousands of Laotians as they grow food and live in their villages. Photojournalist Jerry Redfern worked for 6 years at personal risk and with long, difficult travel to depict the people who live with the more than a billion pounds of unexploded ordnance. Redfern says that more than 20,000 Laotians have been killed by bombs accidentally set off by farm work, field burning and other normal activities. The portfolio, a sample from a magazine article and coming book, employs black and white photography to great advantage, emphasizing the daily exposure to the bombs through strong portraiture, expression and gesture.

  • Photo 1: Bic, 10, lies in the provincial hospital in Phonsavanh, Laos, recovering from wounds caused by a cluster bomblet, or "bombie." While working in his family's fields with a hoe, he struck a buried bombie that exploded, injuring his legs, arm and jaw, which became severely infected. Bic doesn't remember the accident, just waking up in the hospital.
  • Photo 2: Tao Lee squats next to three BLU-49 fragmentation cluster bombs found in a newly cleared farm field overlooking Etoum, a village in southern Laos. When the field was lit to clear it of vegetation, heat from the fire detonated several other buried bombs. They rained shrapnel on the village in the middle of the night, forcing its temporary evacuation. Etoum lies on a crossroads of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail and was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. The Lao government recently moved Etoum from a nearby location to its current spot atop the heavily bombed patch of ground. Locals now must contend with UXO (unexploded ordnance) throughout their new village and farmland.
  • Photo 3: A Vietnamese trader's family has dinner over a pile of bomb shrapnel, cluster bombs and an artillery shell in their hut in Etoum. Vietnamese traders come to the area to buy scrap metal from locals who collect it in the surrounding fields and forest.
  • Photo 4: A technician with a UXOLao clearance team scans for bombs in a woman's yard as she continues weeding. People began building new homes in this spot atop the old Ho Chi Minh Trail before UXOLao had a chance to clear the area. Locals had lived with the bombs in the ground for so long that they were unconcerned by the technicians' warnings. The survey of the area eventually found dozens of cluster bombs and countless bits of shrapnel just inches below the surface. UXOLao is the national bomb disposal outfit, with teams in nine provinces. Even so, they have nowhere near enough people or money to meet the country's clearance needs. In the meantime, many people live atop or near unexploded bombs, waiting for their safe removal.
  • Photo 5: A local man clasps his head in disbelief as he stands in the massive crater left by a 750-pound American bomb, in rural Phongsali Province, Laos. A bomb disposal group safely detonated the bomb which was found by a local girl clearing land for a new vegetable garden.


Second Place


“Japan’s Nuclear Refugees”
National Geographic
David Guttenfelder

From the judges: The judges were impressed with David Guttenfelder’s ability to capture and compose compelling snippets of the desolation near the [2011] Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. It is no accident that one gets the sense that Guttenfelder was the only photojournalist — or even person — in the vicinity as he courageously evaded security barriers and sneaked into areas that were declared off limits. National Geographic’s supporting letter asserts that no other photographer “took the risk to document in such depth this tragedy of exile and abandonment.” Guttenfelder admirably demonstrates the reward of taking such risks.

  • Photo 1: After the March 11 disasters in Japan: tens of thousands were ordered from their homes, their footprints now frozen in the mud.
  • Photo 2: Dogs scrap on Okuma's empty streets. Defying blockades, volunteers rounded up and decontaminated pets, returning them to owners.
  • Photo 3: In a gym in Hirono, residents in protective suits are briefed before being escorted to their abandoned homes for a June 8 visit.
  • Photo 4: In Koriyama, Nobuko Sanpei, 74, eats dinner in her cardboard box home. "I was sweltering so I cut out a hole," she said.
  • Photo 5: People weren't the only refugees. In Japan’s exclusion zone, an abandoned cat makes its home inside a laundromat dryer.


Third Place

“Food Ark”
National Geographic
Jim Richardson

From the judges: Jim Richardson traveled for National Geographic from the Arctic to the Andes, to Iowa, England and Ethiopia to show the looming risk to the world’s food supply. Large-scale loss of genetic diversity in crops and livestock threatens mankind’s ability to feed the world’s burgeoning population. The judges commented that the entries were “very strong in the National Geographic style of color documentary photography.” They feature stellar composition and lighting as each image tells a different chapter of the story.

  • Photo 1: Food conservationist Cary Fowler at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic.
  • Photo 2: The Famine Memorial to victims of the Irish potato famine in Dublin, Ireland. Famine resulted from potato blight.
  • Photo 3: Potato farmers in the Andes grow 1,300 varieties of potatoes, thereby preserving genetic diversity.
  • Photo 4: Sheep farmers in Wales cooperate with preservation groups to maintain diverse breeds.
  • Photo 5: Farmers harvest grain in Ethiopia, original source of many of the world's grain varieties.


Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market


First Place


“Chicago Beat Reporting Exclusives”
Chicago Tribune
Michael Hawthorne

From the judges: The citizens of Chicagoland are lucky that Michael Hawthorne is on the environment beat with his distinctive style of watchdog journalism. He is out there watching the air for dangerous lead, the water for industrial pollutants, and underground for sewage. And he does so armed with data, clear explanations and solid beat reporting.


Second Place


“International Environmental Feature Reporting”
The New York Times
Elisabeth Rosenthal

From the judges: Elisabeth Rosenthal has a keen eye for international environmental stories that will resonate with her audience at The New York Times. She's a versatile, agenda-setting reporter who delivers engaging reports whether she's dodging bicycles in Zurich for a story about driving restrictions or collecting soil samples in a Mexican schoolyard for a lead poisoning investigation.


Third Place


“Covering the Shale Drilling Boom”
Greenwire and
Mike Soraghan

From the judges: Mike Soraghan of Energy & Environment Publishing showed this year that it's possible to write sharp stories about the energy industry that engage insiders and mass audiences alike. Whether he's writing about fish kills or fracking waste, his topics are newsy and his explanations are clear but sophisticated.


Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market


First Place


“Environmental Reporting in Montana”
Missoula Independent and High Country News
Matthew S. Frank

From the judges: Great hands-on, in-depth reporting on issues of importance to local residents. Great storytelling, great story selection. Amazing long-form journalism, demonstrating a keen ability to weave together a complicated narrative spanning multiple characters and scenes. The stories don’t just paint scenes for the sake of the painting – they’re illustrative, informative and impressive.


Second Place


“WVTF Environment Coverage — 2011”
Sandra Hausman

From the judges: Local public radio at its finest. These are sound-rich stories with sweeping, national implications that have been artfully made relevant to local listeners. Clear, crisp, concise pieces that provide a definitive backdrop for any local listener who’d need an entry point and thorough explanation of the topics covered. What made this stand out wasn’t simply that the reporter traveled internationally — but that she demonstrated a knack for storytelling and thoroughness whether she was in Borneo or her backyard.


Third Place


“Environmental Journalism Under Fire”
Columbia Journalism Review
Curtis Brainard

From the judges: Excellent analysis. The author’s ambition shines through. He went above and beyond by surveying reporters on government access. The stories aren’t just well-reported. The analysis isn’t just insightful. The author weaves those together, making his byline a must-read and his stories award-worthy.


Outstanding Feature Story


First Place


“India’s Vanishing Vultures”
Virginia Quarterly Review
Meera Subramanian

From the judges: "India’s Vanishing Vultures" tells the story of an important — but little-known ecological event — the sudden and rapid collapse of vulture populations in India in recent years. The judges said that this story by Meera Subramanian was extremely well researched, compellingly written and showed how the impact of the decline of these uncharismatic birds is dramatically affecting the health and the environment of this South Asian nation.


Second Place


“RISE: Climate Change and Coastal Communities”
Oregon Public Broadcasting and rebroadcast in other outlets
Claire Schoen, Claire Schoen Media

From the judges: What does sea level rise look like in practical terms? Are we prepared to cope with it? In "RISE," Claire Schoen takes listeners on a futuristic tour of San Francisco, which may be underwater someday. Schoen's creative storytelling, fieldwork and reporting make an otherwise grim topic engaging, educational and sometimes even fun.


Third Place


“Closed-Source Crops”
Paul Salopek

From the judges: "Closed-Source Crops" by Paul Salopek is a frightening and thought-provoking story that explores how multinational corporations have become the equivalent of the "new seed oligarchy" in the agricultural world and how their practices and controls threaten biodiversity and food security. It's the kind of article that should be required reading in many college courses.


Rachel Carson Environment Book Award


First Place


Cover of ListedListed: Dispatches from America’s Endangered Species Act
Joe Roman
Harvard University Press

From the judges: Few pieces of American legislation are more important to environmental protection than the Endangered Species Act — and few are more widely maligned and misunderstood. In Listed, Joe Roman provides the expected overview of the ESA and its many impacts, as well as detailed, engaging portraits of specific endangered species and the people working to save them. But he also goes further, drawing on his own experience as a conservation biologist and the emerging lessons of ecological economics to argue that preserving biodiversity is neither excessively expensive nor a purely altruistic exercise. Roman shows persuasively that protecting endangered species and their habitats can be a win for communities and economies, as well as for nature, and in so doing, suggests a path towards greater protection for all species, not just those that make the list.


Honorable Mention


Cover of Once and Future GiantsOnce and Future Giants: What Ice Age Extinctions Tell Us About the Fate of Earth's Largest Animals
Sharon Levy
Oxford University Press

From the judges: The current crisis of biodiversity loss was preceded, and presaged, by the extinction of the large Ice Age mammals, including mammoths, mastodons and ground sloths. In this thoughtful, engaging and thoroughly researched account of lost giants, Levy explores the latest ideas about what caused the Ice Age extinctions, and examines threats to the remaining large wild animals today. Her captivating story extends beyond the missing megafauna, to the cascading ecological changes that follow their disappearance — and what might be achieved to reverse those cascades by re-introducing large animals to ecosystems from which they have so recently been extinguished.


Honorable Mention


Cover of KivalinaKivalina: A Climate Change Story
Christine Shearer
Haymarket Books

From the judges: For many of us, climate change remains a slow, silent crisis. Not so for the people of Kivalina, a small town in Alaska that is melting and eroding into the sea. In novelistic detail, Shearer recounts the science, politics, legal battles and human experience at one of the leading edges of climate change impact. In doing so, she explodes the myth that climate change is a problem for the future, and tells the story not just of one village in Alaska, but of us all.



SEJ’s 2012 Distinguished Judges

Seth Borenstein, Science Writer, The Associated Press
Gary Braasch, Photographer/Writer,
Alex Chadwick, Host of BURN: An Energy Journal
Rob Davis, Senior Reporter, Voice of San Diego
Jim Detjen, Director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University
Alexa Elliott, Series Producer, "Changing Seas," WPBT2
Dan Fagin, Associate Professor of Journalism, New York University; Director, NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program
David Ferris, Managing Editor, Matter Network
Thomas Hayden, Lecturer, Stanford University, and Freelance Journalist
Derrick Jackson, Editorial Writer and Columnist, The Boston Globe
Betsy Marston, Editor, Writers on the Range, High Country News
Mark Neuzil, Professor, University of St. Thomas Department of Communication and Journalism
Vince Patton, Producer/Reporter, Oregon Public Broadcasting
Jim Poyser, Managing Editor, NUVO Newsweekly
Craig Saunders, Freelance Editor and Writer
Mark Schleifstein, Environment Reporter, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune
Julia Scott, Freelance Reporter and Radio Producer
Susan Sharon, Deputy News Director, Maine Public Broadcasting Network
David Steinkraus, Freelance Writer
Douglas Struck, Associate Chair, Journalism Department, Emerson College; former Washington Post Foreign Correspondent and Environment Reporter
JoAnn Myer Valenti, Emerita Professor of Communications

2012 Awards Committee

Beth Daley, The Boston Globe
Douglas Fischer,

Committee Members:
Emilia Askari, Independent Journalist
Perry Beeman, The Des Moines Register
Jeff Burnside, Independent Journalist
Saul Chernos, Independent Journalist

Director of SEJ Awards

Chris Rigel, Rigel Consulting

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