2023 Student Journalism Award, Portfolio: Student Team winner


About the Project

UF’s College of Journalism and Communications received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to support student journalists who spent six months investigating Florida’s water quality for the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and the Florida Water Resources Act, landmark federal and state water laws passed in 1972. They pursued the question of whether water quality is worsening today, after the success of those laws. The question is important because, while we generally know how industrial and sewage pollution got cleaned up across the state and nation 50 years ago, nutrient pollution, harmful algae blooms and other water-quality problems have gotten so bad in recent years that many Floridians have a sense that water quality is much worse than ever before.

The student journalists – all undergraduate journalism majors – had to apply to be part of the special Pulitzer class. Quantifying whether water quality is declining, and by how much, proved frustrating. Federal and state data collection was poor; metrics were different across five state water management districts; and datasets such as sewage spills had been kept inconsistently over time. One student’s early exhortation that “it’s almost like they don’t want us to know” became a mantra for the project.

The dozen students published in-depth multimedia stories, most supported by data analysis, that painted a complex picture: While Florida has come a long way toward cleaning up pollution in the past half century, the state’s water challenges are becoming more acute today due to a combination of human pressures and climate change.

Students used novel multi-media devices and centered their stories around real people. Sara Breske (“Wake Up Now”) reported on the decline of Florida’s signature springs through the grounding of the state’s historic glass-bottom boats, She tapped Florida’s oral history archives to share the voices of the African American tour boat operators who were Florida’s first nature guides.

Alexandra Harris scraped and cleaned up two decades of sewage spill data to show how spills are worsening amid more-extreme rains and storms — and how the spills and worsening rains are strongly correlated. A series of interactives allows Floridians to see the hotspots for urban sewage spills and the dirtiest waters.

The series published on the University of Florida’s public media outlet, WUFT News, over five days in August 2022, well in advance of the flurry of national projects that marked the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act that October.

Judges Comments

The enterprise journalism, the review of data and the literal leg work were all synthisized and simplified into meaningful visuals within an impactful story.