CUNY and coal country aren’t often mentioned together, but this year they intersected through the Aronson Awards, presented annually by Hunter College’s Department of Film and Media Studies. Named for James Aronson, a founder of the journalism concentration at Hunter College, the awards spotlight reporting that has an impact on society, through exposing injustice or bringing about reform.
Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity was among those honored, for his series exposing the collusion of doctors and lawyers with the coal industry. Produced by the center’s workers’ rights unit, it details how the coal industry works to deny the benefit claims of miners sick and dying of black lung disease, and shows how a clinic sponsored by Johns Hopkins University departed from standard medical practice to take the coal companies’ side.
“I spent a lot of time in West Virginia with people who were slowly suffocating to death. They had been essentially screwed by a system that was completely stacked against them and they had no recourse,” said Hamby in a Center for Public Integrity press release. “These are some of the most voiceless people in the country.”
Following Hamby’s series, “Breathless and Burdened,” John Hopkins suspended its black lung program. Members of Congress asked for a federal investigation and the US Department of Labor announced a procedural change to the system that deals with black lung claims.
It’s that kind of social-justice journalism that the Hunter College Department of Film and Media Studies highlights each year with the Aronson Awards.
Blanca Vázquez, an adjunct assistant professor of media studies, says the awards committee (on which she serves) solicits submissions and reads through 70 to 80 nominations. Recognizing investigative journalism, Vázquez says, is important in a time when resources for in-depth stories are dwindling. “We’re living in a world where it’s more important [than ever] to critically understand what’s going on,” Vázquez told Clarion. “We need to be able to connect the dots” – but changes in the media industry are making that kind of reporting less common.
David Alm, also an adjunct assistant professor in the department, directed the Aronson Awards this year. In the classroom, he talks about the challenges journalists face in doing investigative stories, including getting the time and the resources to do their projects.
The Aronson Awards, Alm says, are a chance for students to talk to working journalists and hear how stories with impact are done. “Everything that we talk about in the classroom is real. It’s not just academic,” Alm told Clarion. Through the awards, he says, “students have a chance to see how journalists can work on behalf of people whose problems might otherwise be ignored.”
James Aronson was a faculty member at Hunter for 24 years. He had previously worked as a reporter for the New York Post and The New York Times, and in 1948 was one of the founders of the National Guardian. Coverage by this crusading news weekly in the early 1950s led to the exoneration of five black New Jersey residents who had been unjustly convicted of murder. In 1953, Aronson declined to answer questions about the National Guardian when he was called before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Internal Security Subcommittee.
Aronson was critical of the news media; in his view it was often subservient to government when it should challenge and question. But he still held out hope that dedicated reporters could do important stories.
“Despite my grave doubt that the press of the country is willing to reform itself, I remain a realistic optimist about journalism,” wrote Aronson in his book, The Press and the Cold War. “I believe that there is in the United States a company of honest journalists of all ages, conscious of the potential power of an informed people, who will never give up the effort to establish an honorable communication network.”
James Roman, the Film and Media Studies Department’s chair, says the awards continue Aronson’s legacy. “With the awards, and bringing in the journalists who receive them, our students see what compelling journalism can do,” Roman told Clarion.
Roman, who has taught at Hunter for more than 35 years, recalls that Aronson, a distinguished professor when Roman was hired, was always “very approachable” and “a great mentor to students.”
Training the journalists of the future is also a concern of the Aronson Awards, which include honors for reporting by Hunter students. This year’s awardees included Angely Mercado, a student in a Hunter class that produces a South Bronx community newspaper, The Hunts Point Express.
The idea of a not-for-profit community newspaper staffed by students was first proposed by Hunter journalism professor Bernard Stein, who retired this year. Founded in 2006, The Hunts Point Express provides students with real-world experience covering one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “I think community news that values ordinary people and their lives is by its very nature social-justice journalism,” Stein told Clarion.
While working on the Express, students cover stories neglected or under-covered by mainstream media outlets. Environmental justice issues are a daily reality for the community, home to more than a dozen waste transfer systems and constant truck traffic in the neighborhood.
Mercado, Stein’s former student and a Hunter College senior, won an Aronson student award for a series of housing-justice articles she wrote for the Express. Mercado investigated a decrepit building where the landlord neglected repairs and was working to force tenants out.
“It was shocking to see and hear some of the violations,” said Mercado, who learned of fires caused by faulty wiring and a window that wouldn’t shut. “There was this feeling I need to write [about] this soon,” Mercado said.
In covering the neighborhood’s struggles, Mercado also found a vibrant community with salsa tributes in public parks, urban farming in vacant lots, and panels with some of the neighborhood’s original graffiti artists. Through the class, she not only reported on issues in the neighborhood, but learned its history and the context of the issues she wrote about.
When she took Stein’s class as a junior, Mercado wasn’t in the media studies department. She’s now concentrating in journalism through a dual major in English and Media Studies. “I always admire when people positively change or shed light on a situation,” she told Clarion.