Contest Entries

The Hot Zone


Linda Marsa

Affiliation: Freelance

General Interest Magazines below 1 million circ.

Year: 2010

1. Provide the title of your story or series and the names of the journalists involved.

"The Hot Zone: Dengue in Texas. Malaria in New York. Hypertoxic pollen in Baltimore. Climate Change is scrambling disease in scary new ways" by Linda Marsa.

See this entry.

2. List date(s) this work was published or aired.

December 2010.

3. Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.

The profound impact global warming will have on our health is one of the biggest challenges we face today yet one that few are talking about. This story is one of the first to document the health effects that we're already seeing here in the United States because of a warming planet. These include higher rates of asthma and allergies, even in adults, because milder winters mean pollen seasons are longer, and because high temperatures cook particulates in the air; outbreaks of debilitating and potentially fatal illnesses like dengue fever or West Nile encephalitis that were once confined to Africa or the equatorial belt but have become endemic here because of the migration of mosquitoes to newly hospitable environments; the northward march of ticks that transmit such ailments as Rocky Mountain Spotted fever and Lyme disease; the increase in heat stroke deaths from scorching weather; and the breakdown of the public health system in the aftermath of extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina, that will become more commonplace due to climate change. This story also looks at possible solutions and the failure of government agencies to plan accordingly.

4. Explain types of documents, data or Internet resources used. Were FOI or public records act requests required? How did this affect the work?

This story required nearly a year of research for a couple of reasons. First, so little has been written about this issue. In addition, there were several disparate strands to this story that needed to be thoroughly researched and woven together into a cohesive, comprehensive and -- hopefully--compelling narrative. These subjects included the rise of a variety of vector borne diseases, the increase in asthma and allergies, the health effects of heat waves, and the destructive and often lasting impact of extreme weather events -- hurricanes, floods -- on the public health system. For each specific topic, I spent many hours searching through medical databases for studies, and scouring the Internet for government reports and research from environmental organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Environmental Working Group, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Environmental Defense Fund, that documented how climate change will affect our health, and what is being done to prepare for these changes. I also used blogs to track down real people and flesh out the "on the ground" stories, such as the experience of Moscow residents during last summer's unprecedented heat waves, which resulted in 53,000 deaths in Russia.

5. Explain types of human sources used.

I interviewed at least 50-60 people, some in person and some over the phone. Many of them were not quoted in the final story but they provided depth, heft and confirmation, and helped clarify the science driving these public health issues so I could write about it accurately and in a way that would be understandable to a lay audience. They included doctors and medical experts both in the U.S. and in Europe, academic researchers, public health officials on the federal, state and local level, government policy analysts, experts from environmental groups and think tanks, and real people to illuminate the themes of the story.

6. Results (if any).

The public health community responded quite positively to the story because they are well aware of these issues and don't feel enough attention is being paid to what's happening. This story also served as a springboard for a book I'm currently working on for Rodale.

7. Follow-up (if any). Have you run a correction or clarification on the report or has anyone come forward to challenge its accuracy? If so, please explain.

Nothing in this story has been challenged.

8. Advice to other journalists planning a similar story or project.

We always look for new stories or fresh angles on stories that have been well reported. The downside here, of course, is that by definition not much will have been written. Consequently, it's important to drill down a bit deeper to cobble together information from peer reviewed studies, reports from reputable agencies and interviews with leading experts to ensure that there really is a story and that what you're reporting is accurate, unbiased and firmly rooted in the science.