The Better Government Association has won the National Press Foundation’s 2017 Thomas L. Stokes Award for Best Energy Writing for its three-part series on nuclear safety in Illinois and across the nation.
Separately, the BGA also was recently named a winner, along with The Chicago Sun-Times, in the enterprise reporting category of the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors 2017 newspaper contest. The award was for an investigation into the death of a 14-year-old boy with autism who drowned in a high school pool in Chicago.
For the national Stokes Award, the Washington, D.C.-based National Press Foundation cited the BGA series “Power Struggle” for revealing persistent radioactive leaks around nuclear power plants in Illinois as well as the blurred lines between federal nuclear watchdogs and the nuclear power industry they are empowered to oversee.
The full, three-part series was written by BGA reporters Brett Chase and Madison Hopkins, and versions of the stories were distributed by the Associated Press.
Judges said the series was “a clear-eyed, ambitious investigation into safety issues at nuclear power plants, exposing a culture where regulators often deferred to the nuclear industry.” In particular, they noted a “startling” key finding in the series: Not one of the 687 whistleblower complaints filed by nuclear plant workers with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2010 through 2016 was upheld.
This is the first time the BGA has won the Stokes Award, which was established in 1959. Recent recipients include the Center for Public Integrity, Inside Climate News, Bloomberg, Reuters and ProPublica.
The judges singled out BGA from 57 entries for the Stokes award.
“This is a remarkable honor and national recognition for important work that is the core of our mission,” said BGA President and CEO David Greising. “Our reporters blended documents, data and interviews into a compelling narrative about the safety net for an industry that is one mistake away from disaster—and regulators who don’t act even when workers warn them of trouble. Our reporting provides a valuable resource for those who live in those communities and, really, throughout the nation.”
Honorable mention for this year’s award went to The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina, for its series about politicians allowing utilities to shift risks and costs of new utility construction to consumers.
A nonpartisan, nonprofit news group based in Chicago, the BGA focused its stories on Illinois in part because no state in the nation has more nuclear plants. Chicago is also home to Exelon, which produces more nuclear power than any company in the United States.
The Stokes Award was created by friends and admirers of the late Thomas L. Stokes, a syndicated Washington columnist on national affairs. It is given annually for the best writing “in the independent spirit of Tom Stokes” on subjects of interest to him including energy, natural resources and the environment. The winner of the award receives a $2,000 prize.
This year’s judges were Rod Kuckro of E&E News, Ronnie Greene of Thomson Reuters and Tom Davidson of Gannett.
The National Press Foundation is an independent nonprofit that is run by and for journalists. Its sole mission is to educate journalists about today’s most pressing issues and critical toolbox training.
In being named a winner by the Illinois APME, judges honored the work of BGA reporter Katie Drews and Sun-Times reporter Lauren FitzPatrick for their story on 14-year-old Rosario Gomez, a Chicago Public School high school student with autism who drowned in a crowded school pool during a gym class.
The two reporters collaborated on a story detailing how Gomez didn’t know how to swim, wasn’t wearing a lifejacket and had significant problems communicating, raising serious questions about CPS’ ability to care for its special needs students.
The story was named a winner for Best Enterprise Story in the “Metro” newspaper division.