Cal J-School Snags Top Award, Makes History

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The George Polk Awards, which were announced today, typically highlight the exceptional work done by reporters from media giants like The New York Times and NBC News, each of which won in separate categories this year. More often than not, a smaller publication gets the nod too, like High Country News, which won this year for political reporting. But this year's winner for radio reporting was unprecedented. That is because it went, for the first time, to a journalism school. More specifically, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, which won for "Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet," a student-reported series about global warming. It is the first time in the sixty-year history of the awards that a journalism school has been so honored, said Peg Byron, PR director for Long Island University, which administers the awards. The stories, which can be found at the Polk Web site, ran on Public Radio International's Living on Earth, and were coproduced by American Public Media's American Radio Works, both of which shared in the award.

Rob Gunnison, director of school affairs for the j-school, said the year-long class, taught by Sandy Tolan, took advantage of experts on the Berkeley campus. "It's kind of like having an amazing newsroom when you have access to people like that," he said.

"How a school can do something like this and put something together of that quality is pretty remarkable," he continued. "You don't think of 'student work' as being like that."

Here's the J School press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Berkeley -- A University of California, Berkeley, team of reporters from the Graduate School of Journalism has earned a George Polk Award for their 2006 series of reports on the early signs of global warming from spots around the world, including Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Andes, Bangladesh and the world's so-called polar bear capitol in Hudson Bay, Canada.

The group, financed by the journalism school and led by veteran investigative reporter Sandy Tolan and UC Berkeley climatologist John Harte of the Energy and Resources Group, received the award designated for radio reporting. Student reporters included Pauline Bartolone, Alexandra Berzon, Kate Cheney Davidson, Durrell Dawson, Jori Lewis, Felicia Mello, Nick Miroff, Jon Mooallem, Emilie Raguso, Aaron Selverston and Sandhya Someshekhar.

The prestigious Polk Awards are issued each year by Long Island University in New York City in remembrance of George Polk, a CBS correspondent killed covering the Greek Civil War, which took place from 1946-1949. Among previous winners: Lowell Bergman, a professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and an investigative reporter; Walter Cronkite; Dana Priest; Ed Bradley; Thomas Friedman; Adam Gopnik; Frank Rich; Anne Garrels; Seymour Hersh; Ted Koppel; I.F. Stone; and Edward R. Murrow.

"We're thrilled at this wonderful recognition. This crew worked as hard as I've ever seen a team of journalists work -- from the weeks of poring over documents, to shaping their stories in remote places they had never been, to bringing back human stories from the front lines of climate change," said Tolan. "I'm extremely proud of this team."

Tolan called the project a "wonderful collaboration between journalism and science," and noted that the crew "benefited immensely from the steady, experienced hand of John Harte, our science advisor and my co-teacher. This helped give the series a depth and breadth it wouldn't have had otherwise."

Student journalist Bartolone said that while "it was exciting to push the media coverage beyond 'the debate,' it was an incredible challenge to report on it before science can fully explain the impacts we are seeing." Bartolone reported on drought and dwindling water supplies around Quito, Ecuador.

Another student reporter, Kate Cheney Davidson, reported on the negative consequences of a changing climate in the farming communities on Mt. Kilimanjaro. She said "the power of these stories and the importance of moving the global warming story forward was a no-brainer, but to be recognized in this way is truly humbling and I think indicative of a sea-change in the way we think about this issue."

The UC Berkeley team's stories ran on Salon.com, with radio versions airing on stations that broadcast National Public Radio's Living on Earth program and appearing on the show's Web site.

The series is the product of a two-semester seminar during the 2005-2006 school year and reporting workshop taught by Tolan and Harte. Students fanned out to six countries to explore eight separate issues of climate change.

"We wanted to get beyond the 'debate' about whether global warming exists to document actual changes on the planet," Tolan said as the project concluded. "The time was right, and we had the team to do it."

The reports looked at the political, social and environmental impact of melting glaciers, sea level rise, and warming lakes and savannahs, while focusing on the human impact.

"This (climate change) is an important, and under-told story -- not the issue of global warming itself necessarily, but looking at how people in places around the world are impacted right now, in their everyday lives, by either actual or expected changes, and what they do to respond," said Alexandra Berzon, now a writer with Red Herring magazine.

Berzon was assigned to report on immigrants from the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu, who are emigrating to New Zealand because of concern that their island is going to drown due to global warming. She said she spent around two weeks in Auckland with a community of Tuvaluans there. "They really opened up their lives to me, and the trip was definitely the best experience of my reporting career," Berzon said.

"Climate change has dominated Tuvaluan political life since the 1990s, so most Tuvaluans are very much aware of the dangers their islands face," she said. "The government continues to run occasional workshops to educate citizens on the predicted impacts of global warming and how it will affect them. Consequently, many Tuvaluans use the term 'global warming' to describe the environmental changes they're starting to notice on their islands."

A central premise of the class, Tolan said, was the scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to global warming, a concept endorsed recently by an acclaimed international panel of scientists.

Harte said that by getting the students well-grounded in the scientific fundamentals of global warming, they avoided something for which he's often criticized the media - creating a false balance through the use of "dueling experts" and essentially giving equal weight to unequal sides.

A complete list of this year's Polk Awards is on [the organization's Web site].

The awards will be presented officially on Thursday, April 12, in Manhattan. The radio reporting award will be given to the journalism school team, American Public Media and NPR's Living on Earth.

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NOTE: Professor John Harte is available at (510) 642-8553 or jharte@berkeley.edu. Sandy Tolan is available at sandytolan@gmail.com.

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