CTNewsJunkie Editor Christine Stuart was honored a second time for her news coverage leading to the release of startling school-by-school immunization data last year.
The Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists announced Thursday that Stuart won one of its top annual awards – the Stephen A. Collins Public Service Journalism Award – for her series of stories starting with ”As Measles Returns, Connecticut Offers Little Info About Immunization Rates,” which coincided with the largest number of measles cases around the country in 25 years, including two in nearby New York state.
“The judges called it, ‘Outstanding reporting that is yielding results’,” said Kenn Venit, past president of the Connecticut SPJ chapter, reading from the judges’ comments. “We all are concerned about our health and that of our children, and CTNewsJunkie’s story has an impact on every child in a Connecticut school. Not only does the reporting document those areas of the state that have relatively low rates of measles prevention, the reporting has led policymakers to consider changes that will tighten up vaccination requirements for students. This is a public service journalism that makes a direct difference in a community.”
The series also won recognition in October from the Local Independent Online News Publishers in LION’s inaugural awards contest. In a ceremony at the group’s annual conference in Nashville, Stuart and her colleagues won for Best Breaking News Coverage among medium-sized publications.
Stuart’s reporting uncovered Department of Public Health data identifying 109 schools across Connecticut where kindergarten and seventh-grade measles immunization rates fell below the “herd immunity” rate of 95% recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That original dataset was for the 2017-18 school year, and a second dataset released later in 2019 indicated that another 40 schools had fallen below the recommended rate in the 2018-19 school year.
The recommended rate is designed to minimize the risk of a measles outbreak in the event of an exposure to a person carrying the highly contagious virus, complications from which include pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain), each of which can lead to hospitalization and death. The disease was nearly eradicated in the U.S. following decades of immunization, but it has returned as more parents have begun using religious or medical exemptions available under state laws around the country.
CTNewsJunkie’s coverage included an interactive map showing school locations in shades of green for compliance, yellow for mildly-low immunization rates, all the way through red for high numbers of unimmunized children in a given school.
The data was anonymized so that no children were identified, but the story drew concerns from parents who believe their children have been injured by vaccines, including a lawsuit from one couple with an autistic child seeking to stop the release of the data, and opposition from a group in favor of the government needing consent for vaccinations.
The data prompted immediate concern from state legislators and eventually the governor’s office, along with plans for legislation to eliminate the religious exemption to public school vaccination requirements. Stuart’s award marked the second consecutive year that a LION member won one of the society’s top three awards. LION member Nancy Chapman, of NancyOnNorwalk.com, won the First Amendment Award last year for her work in 2018.