Upton Sinclair Award Winner Laments Media Apathy

Going against the mainstream grain, Jim Morris, senior reporter for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, has consistently—and persistently—written stories that show how the deck is often stacked against workers in hazardous industries—and how it's stacked against their families after the workers have died on the job.

PORTLAND, Ore. — "For reasons I don't fully understand, investigative worker health and safety stories are still a rarity in mainstream media," said Jim Morris, senior reporter for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. Morris has made a career of writing precisely those kinds of stories, and for his efforts he has received more than 50 awards, including his latest, bestowed Tuesday at AIHce 2011: the Upton Sinclair Memorial Award for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting.

"In my reporting over the years, I've sometimes detected an odd bias [in the media] against those who work in the oil and gas fields, refineries, commercial fishing, and similar dangerous occupations," said Morris, delivering the 11th annual Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture prior to receiving the award. "It's as if it is tragic but hardly shocking when workers in these industries die. 'They knew what they were getting into, didn't they?' It's a stunning bias and lack of compassion." Going against the mainstream grain, Morris has consistently—and persistently—written stories that show how the deck is often stacked against workers in hazardous industries—and how it's stacked against their families after the workers have died on the job. Morris's work has included a series on lung disease ("Silicosis should have been eradicated many, many decades ago, but it obviously has not been," he said), fatalities in the construction industry in Texas (for the Houston Chronicle), cancer in the PVC industry (in a series, also for the Houston Chronicle, called "In Strictest Confidence"), manganese risks from welding fumes (resulting in a story in Mother Jones magazine called "Welding's Toxic Legacy," detailing how one longtime welder developed Parkinson's Disease), the marketing of the asbestos trade in the developing world (including a 2010 story focusing on asbestos-caused deaths in Brazil), and the explosion at the Tesoro refinery in Washington State.

"One thing I've learned is to answer a question that hardboiled newspaper editors used to ask reporters: 'Why should I care?'" he said. "It's a question that takes complex policy issues down to the personal level. This is the approach I've tried to take, with some success....

"All of those stories included statistics, documents, data, and quotes--maybe even too many sometimes—but what brought the stories to life and gave them resonance with readers was the focus within the stories on the individual workers involved," Morris said.

"Properly crafted and presented, worker stories can have dramatic impact," he added. "They can give workers a voice and an awareness that 'someone is watching out for me.'"

Closing his lecture, titled "'Why Should I Care?' Humanizing Worker Safety in the Media," Morris said industrial hygiene professionals have a role in media coverage that can positively influence worker safety and health. "Journalists usually don't know about the emerging threats," he told the audience of about 250 attendees in the Oregon Ballroom. "I and other journalists rely on information from people like you for the story. It can have a powerful impact."

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