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Journalism students win Polk Award for climate reporting
From Kilimanjaro to Bangladesh, the Andes to Hudson Bay, students ventured to global warming's front lines - and brought the human stories back

| 28 February 2007

A team of student reporters from the Graduate School of Journalism has earned a prestigious George Polk Award for its 2006 series of reports on the early signs of global warming from spots around the world. The group, financed by the journalism school and led by veteran investigative reporter Sandy Tolan and Berkeley climatologist John Harte, received the award designated for radio reporting.

The Berkeley team's stories ran on Salon.com, with radio versions airing on stations that broadcast National Public Radio's "Living on Earth" program (americanradioworks.publicradio.org) and appearing on the show's website (www.loe.org). Some of the stories were also adapted for publication in California, the magazine of the California Alumni Association (www.alumni.berkeley.edu/calmag/200609/main.asp).

As adapted for publication in the September/October 2006 issue of California magazine, three excerpts from the Berkeley journalism team's award-winning reportage:

Penisita Taniela was sitting on a straw mat in a stilt-raised house on a narrow slit of coral in the South Pacific when he first saw the news on television: Scientists visiting the islands of Tuvalu determined that someday his entire country would drown.

- Tuvalu, by Alexandra Berzon

German ecologist Andreas Hemp has been studying the forests on Kilimanjaro for more than a decade. He says the forest belt produces 500 times more water than the glaciers each year. In a process called "fog-stripping," large, leafy trees in the upper mountain capture water vapor and funnel it in the form of droplets down to the forest floor. According to Hemp, the loss of fog water each year roughly equals the annual requirement for the entire population living on Kilimanjaro. "It's a parallel trend," he says. "[If] we lost the upper forest regions during the same time that we lose the glaciers . it really would be a catastrophe."

- Kilimanjaro, by Kate Cheney Davidson

"A global sea-level rise of about half a meter - the average expected over this century - could cause an area of Bangladesh where about 10 million people now live to be permanently submerged," says Princeton climatologist Michael Oppenheimer. "If even a modest chunk of the Greenland ice sheet or the west Antarctica ice sheet goes, the sea level would rise past the capital of Dhaka - which is in the center of the country. Untold tens of millions of people live between Dhaka and the sea right now."

- Bangladesh, by Emilie Raguso and Sandhya Somashekhar

"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, who called the project "a wonderful collaboration between journalism and science," noted that the crew "benefited immensely from the steady, experienced hand of John Harte, our science adviser and my co-teacher. This helped give the series a depth and breadth it wouldn't have had otherwise." Harte is affiliated with the campus Energy and Resources Group.

The student reporters honored 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.

Bartolone, who reported on drought and dwindling water supplies around Quito, Ecuador, 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."

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."

Students involved in the project 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 impacts of melting glaciers, sea-level rise, and warming lakes and savannahs, while focusing on the human impacts.

"Climate change is an important, undertold story," said Berzon, now a writer with Red Herring magazine. "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."

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 continued. "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 most recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an acclaimed international panel of scientists.

Harte said that by getting the students well-grounded in the scientific fundamentals of global warming, the J-School team 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.

The Polk Awards are issued each year by Long Island University in New York in remembrance of George Polk, a CBS correspondent killed covering the Greek Civil War, which took place from 1946-49. Previous winners include Lowell Bergman, a professor at the journalism school and an investigative reporter, as well as Walter Cronkite, Ed Bradley, Thomas Friedman, Adam Gopnik, Frank Rich, Anne Garrels, Seymour Hersh, Ted Koppel, I.F. Stone, and Edward R. Murrow.

A complete list of this year's Polk Award-winners is online at www.brooklyn.liu.edu/polk/press/2006.html.The awards will be presented officially on April 12 in Manhattan.