“Beckley, W.Va. – The stately wood-paneled chamber in the federal building here unsettled Gary Fox and his wife, Mary. Fox was used to the dusty caverns of the mines in the southern part of the state, where he’d spent more than 25 years working underground in the heart of Appalachian coal country. They had never been in a courtroom before.
“It had been at least 15 years since Fox first noticed signs of black lung disease. It started with shortness of breath. Then a cough that yielded black mucus. By 1999, his symptoms convinced him to apply for federal benefits. A doctor certified by the U.S. Department of Labor examined him and diagnosed the most severe form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. The government ordered his employer, a subsidiary of the behemoth Massey Energy Co., to begin paying him monthly benefits, but, as is almost always the case, the company appealed.
“Gary and Mary now found themselves visitors in a foreign world – one populated by administrative law judges who must make sense of reams of medical evidence, sophisticated legal arguments and arcane rules; coal-company lawyers who specialize in the vagaries of the system and know how to attack claims; and doctors who consistently find cause to diagnose almost anything but black lung.”
These are the opening paragraphs in the first installment of a three-part investigative series by the online news outlet Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and ABC News, which was posted and broadcast from October 29 – November 1, 2013. Called “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from black lung, buried by law and medicine,” the series was the result of a year-long investigation into how some lawyers and doctors allied with coal companies manipulated the system to deny benefits to workers who contracted black lung disease.
The series and its lead reporter (who is no longer with CPI) were awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting, a distinctive honor for an online news outlet. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, the series received awards from the White House Correspondents’ Association, the Newspaper Guild-Communication Workers of America, and others. CPI was able to produce the series with support from the Public Welfare Foundation, among others, and it is a prime example of philanthropic investments in journalism that get results.
For the Public Welfare Foundation, which helped CPI launch a workers’ rights reporting beat in 2010, for media outlets such as CPI is important in raising awareness and helping to maintain accountability in the workplace.
“Through media grants, the foundation aims to shine a light on bad practices that, too often, undermine the ability of workers, particularly low-wage workers, to be safe and healthy on the job and to follow the American dream of moving up the economic ladder,” said Robert Shull, program officer for Workers’ Rights at the Public Welfare Foundation.
As many employees don’t feel empowered to speak out, and many employers have less direct responsibility for their employees, it’s important to keep policymakers, enforcement agencies and the public informed about wage theft, failure to follow safety regulations, health consequences of exposure to toxic substances and other workplace dangers.
So-called low-road employers who fail to pay wages due or provide safe workplaces drive standards down throughout the labor market and put employers who play by the rules at an unfair disadvantage. Too often, these issues are not covered by mainstream media, allowing those who violate labor laws to go unchecked.
That is why, in addition to its support of CPI, the Public Welfare Foundation has given grants regularly to NPR and In These Times, which have fueled coverage of workers’ rights issues. The foundation has also supported singular projects such as the documentary “Food Chains,” showing how workers fare as crops move from farm to table, which featured longtime PWF grantee Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
Jim Morris, who reported on the chemical industry at The Houston Chronicle and now spearheads environmental and labor coverage for CPI, noted that many news outlets have pared down or closed their investigative units in the last decade or so. During his five-and-a-half year tenure at CPI, Morris, who co-edited “Breathless and Burdened,” admitted that philanthropic funding received by CPI and other nonprofit news outlets, “is just crucial…There’s no other way to put it.”
Christopher Turpin, vice president for news at NPR said, “NPR’s investigative reporting is accountability journalism at its finest. Our reporters approach every investigation with extraordinary care, and shine light on the serious issues of our time. We are grateful for the support of donors who understand the importance of rigorously researched, fact-based investigations.”
At the same time, funders are seeing their grants used to spotlight meaningful issues – with significant results.
For example, CPI’s “Breathless and Burdened” series generated a number of administrative reforms aimed at removing barriers to benefits for workers. In addition, Johns Hopkins Hospital suspended its program that offered second medical opinions through its pulmonary department.
Other hard-hitting and investigative stories produced with philanthropic support that have had significant impact include:
- A story by CPI and WBEZ/Chicago Public Media in 2013 about the death of a temporary (temp) worker on the job, and a report by PWF grantee Center for Progressive Reform on the health and safety of contingent workers, helped prompt the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt new measures to protect temp workers, including a new code in the information system used by field inspectors to track incidents involving temps. OSHA also formed a partnership with the temp staffing trade association to promote health and safety in the industry.
- Within six months after a joint CPI–NPR investigation on the resurgence of black lung disease, DOL assembled a team of experts on mine dust enforcement from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and other offices in the department. A flurry of increased enforcement actions found scores of violations at more than a dozen mines.
- After the deadly explosion at a chemical facility in West, Texas, In These Times was the first media outlet to report that OSHA had not inspected the site in years, putting the agency’s inspection capabilities in the spotlight.
- Earlier this year, NPR produced a series on the limitations of state workers’ compensation programs, including a so-called multi-state race to the bottom to slash benefits. After the series was broadcast, advocates in at least four states were able to secure hearings on the issue and beat back proposals for reduced benefits.
- Also this year, CPI published the first four installments of a series called “Unequal Risk,” a comprehensive look at workers’ exposure to toxic substances. Additional installments will be published in the fall, but academics are already planning to use the series in classroom discussions as well as in academic articles and books.
News outlets are continuing to be more adept and sophisticated at extending the impact of their investigative reporting efforts through multi-media platforms, including video, databases, and interactive graphics. There are also more partnerships among media outlets to distribute content more broadly and “amplify” the reporting.
As with commercial advertisers, media grantees make it clear that they retain editorial control. And foundations are careful not to cross the line.
“I can say that [during my time at CPI], I have never felt the pressure or nudge to cover something we did not intend or want to cover,” said Morris, admitting that the firewall between philanthropic funders and CPI is “stronger than I imagined.”
“Like all good journalists, we’re happy to look at an issue that someone tells us about,” he added. “But, ultimately, it’s our call.”
ABOUT THE PUBLIC WELFARE FOUNDATION
The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit www.publicwelfare.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.