The Chicago Tribune has won three national awards for its series “Playing With Fire,” an investigation of toxic flame retardants and the deceptive campaigns that two powerful industries waged to promote the chemicals.
Among the awards is the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, given by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. That award, announced Tuesday night, comes with a $25,000 prize for the series’ reporters, Patricia Callahan, Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne.
The series received a second honor Tuesday from another Harvard-based organization — the Nieman Foundation’s Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers, which comes with a $10,000 prize.
In addition, the Tribune’s series was one of two winners of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ top investigative prize for daily newspapers over 400,000 circulation.
“Playing With Fire,” praised for its “worthy public-service aim, compelling reporting and gripping storytelling,” shared the award with the “Wal-Mart Abroad” project by David Barstow of The New York Times.
“Playing With Fire,” a series launched by the Tribune last May, revealed the misleading promotion of flame retardants by Big Tobacco and the chemical manufacturing industry. The chemicals not only don’t work as promised, they are harmful.
The investigation prompted the U.S. Senate to revive toxic chemical reform legislation. California moved to scrap the rule responsible for flame retardants’ presence in most U.S. homes, meaning manufacturers may soon stop adding the chemicals to furniture and baby products.
Finalists for the Goldsmith Prize included The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a collaborative effort by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network.
Alex S. Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, said in a statement about the Tribune’s Goldsmith honor: “The judges this year were especially struck by the initiative shown in recognizing a very important policy issue embedded in something as familiar and unthreatening as a sofa. It goes to prove the importance of not just looking, but seeing and acting.”
Finalists for the Taylor Family Award were The Boston Globe and the Tampa Bay Times.
Jenn Abelson, who helped judge the Taylor competition, commented: “The Chicago Tribune’s ‘Playing With Fire’ offers an exhaustive account of the deception surrounding the flame retardant industry and how it lured burn doctors, fire marshals and tobacco manufacturers into promoting a toxic and ineffective ‘solution.’ The series carefully documented the widespread lies and manipulation on the part of the chemical industry and connected it to real lives and awful tragedies.”
Tribune Editor Gerould W. Kern expressed gratitude for all three prizes.
“The reporting by Trish, Sam and Michael in ‘Playing With Fire’ exemplifies the Chicago Tribune’s mission,” Kern said. “We are honored by these awards.”