Three Chicago Tribune Reporters Win Oakes Award for Reporting on Carcinogenic Flame Retardants

By: Press Release | Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

NEW YORK, March 14, 2013 – The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism announced today that Chicago Tribune reporters Patricia Callahan, Michael Hawthorne and Sam Roe have won the 2012 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism for their year-long investigative series “Playing with Fire.”  

The award, which carries a $5,000 prize and citation, is given annually to the author or authors of an article or series in a U.S. newspaper, magazine or online media outlet that makes an exceptional contribution to the public’s understanding of environmental issues. It will be presented at a luncheon and panel on Thursday, April 18 at Columbia Journalism School.  

The Oakes Award jury cited the reporters’ efforts as a classic investigative series that “exposes an outrageously deceptive campaign by the chemical and tobacco industries, a campaign that is now decades long and has loaded toxins by the pound into every home and workplace across the United States.”  

The series, which ran throughout 2012 in the Chicago Tribune and its website, argued that officials in Big Tobacco and the chemical industry have deliberately misled government agencies in promoting the flame retardants that are packed in the foam cushions inside sofas, mattresses and upholstered chairs.  

The jury wrote, “These compounds are not only carcinogenic, they do not even work. Industry lobbyists have resorted to front groups, pseudoscience, and paid expert testimony to sell us very bad goods…This series has already led to an EPA investigation, two Senate Hearings, and California’s overhaul of its flammability standards. The prospect of toughened regulations has driven reforms by at least two major manufacturers of carcinogenic flame retardants, and one national retailer of crib mattresses.”  

The judges also cited the journalists behind three other series as honorable mentions: USA Today’s reporters Allison Young and Peter Eisler for their series “Ghost Factories,” an in-depth multi-media investigative public service national series that exposed the lack of government intervention when warned more than a decade ago about the critical extent of lead contamination in soil across the country from 230 long-closed factories, joining leather shoe journalism with design, digital, database and visual experts to present exemplary, historically researched work; InsideClimate News reporters Lisa Song, Elizabeth McGowan and David Hasemyer for their series “The Dilbit Disaster,” which uncovered what larger, better-funded news teams missed about dilbit, a toxic and potentially ruinous product of Canada’s tar sands, revealing widespread negligence thrusting the debate into the public domain; and Environmental Health News reporters Brian Bienkowski, Crystal Gammon, Liza Gross, Brett Israel, Jane Kay, Cheryl Katz, Lindsey Konkel, Doug Struck and Rae Tyson for their multi-part series “Pollution, Poverty, People of Color,” EHN dispatched reporters to seven cities to profile the wide variety of environmental health threats facing low-income communities of color. Thirty years after the emergence of the environmental justice movement with a protest in North Carolina, poor communities with large African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American populations still are exposed to a disproportionate burden of industrial pollutants. Honorable mentions will receive citations at the luncheon.  

About the Oakes Award  

The John B. Oakes Award honors the career of the late John B. Oakes, a pioneer of environmental journalism, who worked for The New York Times as a columnist, editorial writer, editor of the editorial page, and creator of the op-ed page. It was created in 1994 at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environment and conservation advocacy organization, of which John Oakes was a founding trustee. The prize moved to Columbia in 2005. The Oakes judges represent a cross section of distinguished journalists and environmental specialists.  

About the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism  

For a century, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism has prepared journalists with instruction and training that stresses academic rigor, ethics, journalistic inquiry, and professional practice. Founded with a gift from Joseph Pulitzer, the School opened in 1912 and offers master of science, master of arts, and doctor of philosophy degrees. Learn more at:

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