Microscopic in size, particulate air pollution — most of it arising from the burning of fossil fuels and other industrial processes — can easily slip past the respiratory system’s defenses and ravage the body. The most worrisome of this pollution, with particles 30 times smaller than the width of a typical human hair, claims more than 4 million lives each year, and it is now the sixth highest risk factor for early death worldwide.
For this project, we assembled a global team of journalists and partner organizations, including the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and STAT News, to visit seven countries on five continents, north and south, rich and poor, to explore and document the impacts of fine particulate pollution on the lives of everyday people. To best convey the magnitude and urgency of this global issue, we sought to use every journalistic tool at our disposal, bringing together prose, photography, 360-degree video, animation, and real-time data — and then deliver them on a beautifully designed microsite.
The result is a powerful multipart — and multimedia — series driven by the visual storytelling of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Larry C. Price and accompanied by revealing investigations from reporters on the ground in each location. The package has already won a prestigious George Polk Award for Environmental Journalism and the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation’s Digital Media Award.
“I can remember thinking many times walking down the street with my cameras … ‘This is hopeless. How can this ever be turned around?’” Price says. These stories and their accompanying visuals are a critical first step. They provide more than just an unfiltered view of the lives that are at stake; they also offer a sweeping record of the economic desperation and, too often, political indifference that keep a fast-developing planet locked on a path polluted by fossil fuels.
Doubters may still consider the impact of fossil fuels on the global climate to be abstract, diffuse, and uncertain, but these impacts are clear and present: People are dying. “It was our goal from the beginning to make this often-invisible topic impossible to ignore,” says Undark editor in chief Tom Zeller Jr. “By our reckoning, the best way to do that was to assemble some of the best visual documentarians working today, pair them with ambitious, deep-digging reporters on the ground in each country, and deliver to our visitors a data-rich, visually innovative, and narratively compelling series of investigations that could live on the web as a resource for years to come.”
We hope we’ve done that with “Breathtaking,” which we are proud to nominate an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award.