The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has announced that the inaugural Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism will go to a team of reporters from the Charleston Post and Courier, for an investigative series that shed light on a little-known impact of climate change and an overlooked risk of offshore drilling in the eastern U.S.
The series featured a captivating piece by Tony Bartelme that took readers “into” the Gulf Stream, the powerful system of currents that carries warm tropical water up the U.S. East Coast to the Arctic. Weaving the story of a 1969 submarine expedition with the more recent story of an unexpected Gulf Stream slowdown, Bartelme expertly conveyed both the current’s might and its fragility in the face of climate change. In a data-driven companion piece, Bartelme and Emory Parker used more than 1,000 simulations to paint a startling picture of how the Gulf Stream could complicate efforts to contain spills from offshore drilling operations — a salient concern now that some lawmakers are pushing to open the East Coast to drilling. And in a mark of the team’s innovative approach to audience engagement, the series included an adult coloring book: “30 Days in the Gulf Stream,” designed by Bartelme and Chad Dunbar.
“It was really well done and creative — an unexpected story told with great storytelling technique,” remarked a member of the judging panel. “The topic was fresh, and it had real impact.” National environmental groups described the team’s work as “stunning,” and the series helped energize the drilling debate ahead of South Carolina’s 2018 elections.
In addition to the Post and Courier series, judges honored two other outstanding entries as finalists: The Seattle Times series Hostile Waters, a gut-wrenching story of how hunting, pollution, and other human activities have caused the population of Southern Resident Orcas in Puget Sound to dwindle toward extinction; and The Last Grove, a Tampa Bay Times feature that recounts the closing of Hillsborough County’s last commercial orange grove, a victim of Florida’s citrus greening epidemic. The three honorees rose to the top of a competitive field that included more than 100 entries from newspapers, magazines, and radio stations across the U.S.
Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. “The local newspaper and radio station are where many people get the news that matters to them the most, and sadly, a lot of good science reporting at these outlets goes unnoticed,” said Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program. “So it was really encouraging to see the quality, breadth, and depth of science coverage in this year’s entries — and to see that these stories are having real impacts in their communities.”
The winning team from the Post and Courier will be honored at a luncheon ceremony at MIT’s Samberg Center on Wednesday, April 17.
The McElheny Award is made possible by generous support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation. The award’s judges and screeners include Brian Bergstein (freelance journalist), Magnus Bjerg (TV 2, Denmark), Alicia Chang (Associated Press), Jason Dearen (Associated Press), Lisa De Bode (freelance journalist), Gideon Gil (STAT), Elana Gordon (WHYY), and Barbara Moran (WBUR).
2019 McElheny Award honorees
Charleston Post and Courier (Tony Bartelme, Chad Dunbar, and J. Emory Parker)
“A powerful current just miles from SC is changing. It could devastate the East Coast.”
“If oil spilled off SC’s coast, a huge current would make it ‘impossible to control’”
“A massive current off Charleston’s coast is changing”
Seattle Times (Lynda V. Mapes, Steve Ringman, Emily Eng, Lauren Frohne, and Ramon Dompor)
“The orca and the orca catcher: How a generation of killer whales was taken from Puget Sound”
Tampa Bay Times (Lisa Gartner)
“Florida scientists are working to solve greening. They were too late for Cee Bee’s.”
The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, founded more than 30 years ago, seeks to nurture and enhance the ability of journalists from around the world to accurately document and illuminate the often complex intersection of science, technology and human culture. It does so through an acclaimed fellowship program — which hosts 10 or more journalists every academic year — and also through science-focused seminars, skills-focused master classes, workshops, and publications.
Since it began, the program has hosted more than 300 fellows, who continue to cover science across a range of platforms in the United States, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, the Associated Press, and broadcast outlets ranging from ABC News to CNN, as well as in numerous other countries.