Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger are about to pick up some well deserved hardware for their series on bisphenol A (BPA) – a plastic hardener that leaches from plastic when microwaved. The substance causes neurological and developmental hazards, but it is ubiquitous in food storage containers, including water bottles and baby bottles. Rust and Kissinger’s 2007-08 reporting on the problem, and the FDA’s eagerness to overlook it, ignited public controversy, causing FDA to reconsider a decision to take a pass on regulating BPA. In fact, FDA has promised an update on the issue this week.
In April, Rust and Kissinger will receive one of journalism’s highest honors for the series, the George Polk Award from Long Island University. The series has already been awarded the 2008 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The headlines of their stories, under the banner, “Chemical Fallout,” tell the tale:
- BPA leaches from ‘microwave safe’ products
- EPA veils hazardous substances
- Plastics industry behind FDA research, study finds
- Donation raises questions for head of FDA’s bisphenol A panel
- EPA fails to collect chemical safety data
- Hazardous flame retardant found in household objects
- EPA drops ball on danger of chemicals to children
- Warning: Bisphenol A is in you
- Are your products safe? You can’t tell
The series really was uncommonly enterprising, all the more impressive because of the general state of reporting these days. Many of today’s reporters say they were attracted to journalism by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s relentless pursuit of the Watergate story. But so often news coverage goes not much deeper than a press release and a snappy quote. And if the press release is from a government agency, dense and officious, it’s all the more likely to be accepted uncritically, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. That’s partly because newsroom resources are so thin that reporters don’t have time to really dig in on a story, particularly complicated stories about the environment. But it’s also because too many reporters mistake cynicism for healthy skepticism. It’s one thing to go on a cable gabfest and snark about the failings of politicians and government. It’s quite another to go out and get the story.
In this series, Kissinger and Rust showed themselves to be story-getters, and their work reminds us of what reporting can be when practiced by committed and capable professionals, with institutional support. Congratulations to them and to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for printing their work.