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NPR, Ohio Valley ReSource Honored For Black Lung Investigation

Howard Berkes

Investigative Reporters and Editors has honored NPR's Howard Berkes and the Ohio Valley ReSource for reporting on the resurgence of black lung cases in Appalachia.

ReSource reporter Benny Becker worked with Berkes to gather data and interviews for an NPR investigation that documented far more cases of complicated black lung — the worst stage of the disease — than the federal research agency tracking it had identified.

IRE gave the story the national award in the large market radio category.

The IRE judges said Berkes discovered that the number of cases was 10 times higher than the official count, mainly because the federal government was tracking only working miners.

"But its methodology missed hundreds of miners who needed their paychecks and waited to go to clinics to seek federal benefits until they were laid off, their mines closed, or they were too sick to work," the IRE contest judges noted.

The reporting also found that the disease is striking younger coal miners.

Becker produced this poignant audio profile of one such miner, Mackie Branham Jr., whose commitment to his family and community come through even as he labors for breath. Data reporter Alexandra Kanik produced graphics demonstrating themaze-like process miners face when seeking black lung benefits, and the amount of aid that has come to the Ohio Valley region.

The reporting sparked an outpouring of concern for Branham and renewed interest in study and funding for black lung disease monitoring and treatment.

A recent letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives noted that funding for black lung clinics has been frozen for years, and many are stuck with outdated diagnostic equipment.

NPR and the ReSource are committed to pursing further developments in this issue, which has important implications for the health of miners and the economics of mining communities.

IRE also honored work by the ReSource's colleagues at the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Reporter Kate Howard took a top honor for her coverage of the University of Louisville. This is the second year that KyCIR won the national award in the small market radio category.

IRE was founded in 1975 as a grassroots, nonprofit organization with a mission to foster excellence in investigative journalism.

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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