This Is What Genius Looks Like – Part 2

In a post from last week, I talked about the Genius Awards given by the MacArthur Foundation and focused on a particular winner, Vijay Gupta. I also noted that I thought I would turn the Genius Awards into a series of posts, profiling a different winner every week or so.

This week’s MacArthur Fellow is Ken Ward, Jr., an investigative journalist whose work has focused on revealing the human and environmental toll of natural resource extraction in West Virginia and spurring greater accountability among public and private stakeholders.

Here is Ken’s brief bio from the MacArthur Foundation web site:

Ken Ward Jr. is an investigative journalist whose in-depth coverage of the coal, chemical, and natural gas industries in West Virginia is exposing the true economic, social, and health impacts of industrial abuse on Appalachian residents and communities. As a staff writer for the Charleston Gazette-Mail for more than twenty-five years, Ward fearlessly reports on worker safety violations, environmental hazards, and corporate malfeasance of regional coal and chemical companies.

He employs familiar tools of the journalistic trade—documentary discovery, Freedom of Information Act filings, one-on-one interviews and the like—but through a combination of tenacity, curiosity, and compassion for the residents of his home state, his investigations uncover the larger context surrounding specific incidents and inspire empathy for victims and their families. Working jointly with reporters at National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, Ward uncovered decades of government inaction around black lung disease that allowed it to continue to afflict miners even as regulators and politicians assured the public it was no longer a threat. Subsequently, the Mine Safety and Health Administration instituted new regulations. His reporting on a 2014 chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 people included an examination of the widespread lack of emergency planning and accident prevention in the coal and chemical industry. In his current work for the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, he is investigating the growth of the natural gas industry in West Virginia and its impact on communities and the environment. 

Through balanced analysis and comprehensive documentation and discovery, Ward is providing much-needed clarity about the overlooked consequences of corporate practice and motivating companies and policymakers to be accountable partners with residents striving for healthy communities.

In addition to his reporting for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Ken has also maintained two blog sites for the past nine years – the Coal Tattoo blog and the Sustained Outrage blog. The Coal Tattoo blog, part of the Charleston Gazette, attempts to build on the newspaper’s longtime coverage of all things coal — with a focus on mountaintop removal, coal-mine safety, and climate change. The Sustained Outrage blog, also part of the Charleston Gazette, is meant to showcase the newspaper’s commitment to its readers by serving as a public watchdog over government, business, and other powerful entities in West Virginia society, to ensure that the public interest is protected.

Ken is also an active Twitter user, with over 12 thousand followers and more than 34 thousand tweets.

Clearly, Ken Ward, Jr. is someone who has found a cause that is important to him, and millions of others, and made that cause his life work.

According to Wikipedia, Ward was not only born in West Virginia, but he also graduated from West Virginia University. And the MacArthur Foundation is not the only organization that has recognized the important work that Ward has done. Ward won an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship in 2006 to research and write about mining deaths in the coal industry. He is also a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Edward J. Meeman Award for his environmental reporting and won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2000. His work and research on coal mine issues as an Alicia Patterson Fellow earned him an Investigative Reporters and editors medal.

I love reading about someone who has found their passion and is able to share that passion with others, and Ken Ward, Jr. certainly fits that profile.

And he is not resting on his laurels. Since receiving the Genius Award on October 4, Ward has published three more articles for the Charleston Gazette-Mail focused on the coal and natural gas industries.

But that should come as no surprise and is what one would expect from a Genius Award winner.

It is also great to see an investigative reporter winning the ward, given all the criticism of the news industry over the past two years. Clearly, there is still a strong need for such an industry, and for committed people like Ken Ward, Jr., to keep our institutions and our leaders honest and accountable.

Congratulations to Ken Ward, Jr., and I wish you continued success.

*photo from


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