2019 Excellence in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom winner

Poisoned Cities; Deadly Border

About the Project

“Poisoned Cities, Deadly Border” is unlike most projects.

Instead of thrusting a user into a traditional written report, it lets you begin literally anywhere. Any place, any storyline, in as little as one minute, can reveal something new about the important and sometimes heartbreaking subject.

The seamless digital presentation leads a user from one idea to the next, in as little or as much time as a person chooses to spend. It includes interactive graphics, short-form and long-form video, and 360-degree virtual-reality experiences narrated by the team. The combined scope of the reporting and unique digital journey create what may be an unprecedented approach to digital reporting.

Nothing about this digital innovation detracted from the underlying public service of the work: Digital metrics showed a user’s most common destination was to one of the long-form written stories. That is, the digital presentation deepened the engagement rather than limiting it.

The digital journey presented users with an unusual but powerful question: How much time do you have? Project metrics showed the response: Most users dove toward the in-depth reporting, showing the explanatory power of the journalism itself.

Journalists Ian James and Zoë Meyers began this project wanting to learn more about the polluted New River, which flows from Mexico across the border into Calexico, California. They went door-to-door interviewing people in a neighborhood next to the river. They found that residents suffer from illnesses including asthma and thyroid disorders, and that many avoid going outside because the stench of the river gives them headaches.

While they collected and analyzed water data, Ian and Zoë began reporting on how the air pollution in Mexicali is affecting people on both sides of the border. They interviewed Dr. Juan Valente Mérida Palacio, an asthma specialist whose research has shown that children in Mexicali suffer reduced lung capacity when the air is filled with particle pollution. He explained that the pollution is leading to higher rates of diseases ranging from asthma to heart disease. As he put it, “Our children are now sick children. They’re condemned to be sick.”

The team at The Desert Sun, led by editor Greg Burton, decided to expand the focus of their reporting, examining both air and water pollution, as well as the system of environmental oversight and enforcement, and the role of Mexicali’s many factories.

The project involved months of reporting in Mexicali and Calexico, and a detailed examination of documents and data from Mexican, U.S. and California government agencies.

Ian and Zoë interviewed residents in neighborhoods next to the factories and found that many people are suffering from the smoke and acrid fumes. They spoke with environmental regulators and learned that Mexicali has only four functioning air-quality monitors, which are located far from most of the city’s factories.

They pursued stories of fatal asthma attacks triggered by pollution. Their interview with Michelle Dugan, whose sister died of an asthma attack, became a central piece of the series.



Greg Burton accepted the 2019 award for Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling, Small Newsroom. (Video by Justus Hawkins, ONA19 HBCU Fellow)