The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has announced that the investigative series “Big Poultry,” published by The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer, has been chosen as the 2023 winner of the Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional journalism. This series of articles uncovered the wide-ranging, unregulated impact of the poultry industry in North Carolina — from odors to pollution to the predatory nature of poultry contract farming.
The series draws from more than 130 interviews and involved extensive analysis of satellite imagery, industry finances, and state laws, among other data. It expertly merges personal stories and hard data and creates a cohesive and comprehensive deep dive into an underreported, but pervasive, phenomenon in North Carolina. The series has engaged tens of thousands of readers and sparked a debate about the poultry industry in the state legislature.
“With remarkable enterprise and persistence, these reporters from The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer penetrated the secrecy that obscures the scope and impact of thousands of industrial-scale poultry production farms in North Carolina, which together generate billions of pounds of unchecked agricultural waste,” a judge said of the series.
“Big Poultry” was reported and written by Charlotte Observer investigative reporters Gavin Off and Ames Alexander and News & Observer environmental reporter Adam Wagner. The series was edited by McClatchy Southeast Investigations Editor Cathy Clabby and was supported by the work of News & Observer investigative reporters David Raynor and Tyler Dukes, and McClatchy newspapers visual journalists.
“The Victor K. McElheny award recognizes the remarkable science reporting done at the local level by American journalists, and 'Big Poultry' is an outstanding example of that,” says Deborah Blum, director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. “We are proud to honor this series, which raises such important issues and reminds us of the essential role of journalists in protecting our country by illuminating such problems.”
The 2023 McElheny Award received a robust and diverse pool of submissions from around the United States. Also on the short list of finalists for the award are four other exceptional journalism projects: “Undermined,” a collaboration between Navajo Times, Santa Fe Reporter, Source New Mexico, Capital & Main, and USA Today that uncovered the link between uranium poisoning and increased vulnerability to the Covid-19 virus in the Navajo Nation; “Fighting for Air,” from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which examines the intersection of asthma with substandard housing and health systems; “When the Heat is Unbearable but There’s Nowhere to Go,” a collaboration between High Country News and Type Investigations, which exposed the impact of extreme heat on the incarcerated population of Washington State; and “There Must be Something in the Water,” published by the Minnesota Reformer, which investigated how the company 3M obscured the impact of chemical contamination in the water of Washington Country, Minnesota, and the ongoing health impacts of said contamination on the population.
Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public-health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. The winning team will receive a $10,000 prize. The winners will be honored at the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 40th anniversary celebration on Saturday, April 22.
The Knight Science Journalism Program extends a special thanks to the 2022 McElheny Award jurors: Jeff DelViscio (senior multimedia editor, Scientific American); Robert Lee Hotz (president, Alicia Patterson Foundation); Brant Houston, (Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting, University of Illinois); Amina Khan (science editor, National Public Radio); and Maya Kapoor (assistant professor of English, North Carolina State University). The program also extends warm appreciation to the award’s screeners: Mary-Rose Abraham, Sebastien Malo, Wojtek Brzezinski, and Kelly Servick.
The McElheny Award is made possible by generous support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation.
A complete list of 2023 Victor K. McElheny Award honorees:
“Big Poultry,” by Gavin Off , Ames Alexander, and Adam Wagner (The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer)
“Undermined,” by Eli Cahan (Navajo Times, Santa Fe Reporter, Source New Mexico, Capital & Main, and USA Today)
“Fighting for Air,” by Talis Shelbourne (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
“When the Heat is Unbearable but There’s Nowhere to Go,” by Sarah Sax (High Country News and Type Investigations)
“There Must be Something in the Water,” by Deena Winter (Minnesota Reformer)