Investigating The Bronx, Lehman Student Journalists Nominated for Work on At-Risk Communities

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a grid of students' faces.
Students in the Fall 2022 journalism course on investigative reporting

Ten Lehman students, enrolled in Journalism Professor Eileen Markey’s investigative reporting course had no idea their work would make a real impact. But after their collaborative piece, “Buried Beneath: The Fight to Clean Up Toxic Brownfields in The Bronx,” was published in New York outlet City Limits, it brought policymakers to the table and was subsequently recognized by Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. (IRE) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) for its excellence.

“We were interested in the prevalence of these brownfields in low-income communities of color, curious about how historic patterns of discrimination and segregation influenced what got cleaned up and what didn’t, and alarmed that so few people—almost no one—knew about it,” they wrote.

During the Fall 2022 semester, the class excavated data from public records to produce an interactive map of brownfields in the Bronx with information about type of contamination and the site owners responsible for cleanup. Through shoe leather reporting and interviews with government officials, environmental experts, people in affected communities, and activists, they also produced a video spotlight on one of the sites and a sidebar about failed regulation of PERC, the most common contaminant.

“For a reporting team comprised completely of first-generation students of color, this project was both enraging and empowering,” said Markey. “These brownfield sites have been known to the state for years, in some cases decades, but no progress has been made towards remediation.”

“One of the most rewarding things was working together as a team, said Ryan Pullado, the group’s multitasker who was critical to sustaining the project’s momentum. “We were discussing our ideas, brainstorming, all learning at the same time, trying to piece together this investigative project. I'm proud that we all, as a group, were able to create something meaningful.”

Buried Beneath was published on January 30, 2023 and soon after, senior staff of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and elected officials agreed to meet with a community group that had been advocating for increased oversight of the remediation process. They also attended a press conference called by the group.

“I am glad that this story is getting the recognition it deserves, and It makes all the work that semester all the more worth it,” said Emmanuel Valerio, who went deep into research on PERC for the project. “Journalism is not easy, but it is incredibly rewarding to see the labor of many talented people come together into a piece like this, that can turn eyes and inspire real change in the community.”

Professional journalists recognized the project as well. In the spring of 2023, Aminata Gueye and Pullado presented the project on a panel about the power of student journalism at the IRE annual conference in Orlando. Then, last fall, the project was nominated for a Mark of Excellence Award for the Region 1 chapter of SPJ. Gueye, joined by course participants Megan Walls and Andrew Figueroa, represented the class at the two-day SPJ awards conference held at Emerson University in Boston.

“When we came together, we really saw what we could accomplish,” said Gueye, who worked on digital mapping. “We all played to our strengths. Some people were great speakers. Some people were great photographers. We had writers. So, I learned how journalism is a very collaborative process.”

Although the piece did not win the award, it was one of only three finalists for the “In Depth Reporting” category, along with submissions from winner Boston University and Temple University. Lehman competed against teams from schools renowned for student journalism including Harvard, Syracuse, and Columbia Universities.

“For me it was great to have students see that journalism is a guild, and that going to conferences and events like these is a way to see yourself a member of that community,” Markey said.

Figueroa and Walls, who graduate this May, are looking forward to finding their place in the guild—focusing on sports and cultural reporting, respectively. Gueye was recently accepted to the competitive Puffin Writing Fellows program sponsored by The Nation. For eight months, she'll be among a small cohort of student journalists who will write for and be mentored by Nation editors and visiting journalists.