Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.

Since 2010, Berkes has focused mostly on investigative projects, beginning with the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia in which 29 workers died. Since then, Berkes has reported on coal mine and workplace safety, including the safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine, other failures in mine safety regulation, the resurgence of the deadly coal miners disease black lung and weak enforcement of grain bin safety as worker deaths reached a record high. Berkes was part of the team that collaborated with the Center for Public Integrity in 2011 resulting in Poisoned Places, a series exploring weaknesses in air pollution regulation by states and EPA.

Before moving into his current role, Berkes spent a decade serving as NPR's first rural affairs correspondent. His reporting focused on the politics, economics and culture of rural America.

Based in Salt Lake City, Berkes reported on the stories that are often unique to non-urban communities or provide a rural perspective on major issues and events. In 2005 and 2006, he was part of the NPR reporting team that covered Hurricane Katrina, emphasizing impacts in rural areas. His rural reporting also included the effects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military families and service men and women from rural America, including a disproportionate death rate from this community. During multiple presidential and congressional campaigns, Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on those races.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, through the 2012 games in London. His reporting in 1998 about Salt Lake City's Olympic bid helped transform a largely local story about suspicious payments to the relatives of members of the International Olympic Committee into an international ethics scandal that resulted in Federal and Congressional investigations.

Berkes' ongoing reporting of Olympic politics and the Olympic Games has made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others. When the Olympics finally arrived in Salt Lake City, Berkes' coverage included rides in a bobsled and on a luge sled in attempts to help listeners understand how those sports work. Berkes was part of the reporting team that earned NPR a 2009 Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for coverage of the Beijing Olympics.

In 1981, Berkes pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He's traveled thousands of miles since then, to every corner of the region, driving ranch roads, city streets, desert washes, and mountain switchbacks, to capture the voices and sounds that give the region its unique identity.

Berkes' stories are heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. His analysis of regional issues was featured on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Berkes has also been a substitute host of Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered.

An easterner by birth, Berkes moved west in 1976, and soon became a volunteer at NPR member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. His reports on the 1980 eruptions of Mt. St. Helens were regular features on NPR and prompted his hiring by the network. Berkes is sometimes best remembered for his story that provided the first detailed account of the attempt by Morton Thiokol engineers to stop the fatal 1986 launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Berkes teamed with NPR's Daniel Zwerdling for the report, which earned a number of major national journalism awards. In 1989, Berkes followed up with another award-winning report that examined NASA's efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

Berkes has covered Native American issues, the militia movement, neo-nazi groups, nuclear waste, the Unabomber case, the Montana Freemen standoff, polygamy, the Mormon faith, western water issues, mass shootings and more. His work has been honored by many organizations, including the American Psychological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes has also trained news reporters, consulted with radio news departments, and served as a guest faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In 1997, he was awarded a Nieman Foundation Journalism Fellowship at Harvard University.

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The Torch
5:13 pm
Mon July 23, 2012

Spotting An 'American Idol' Moment At The Olympics

International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams points to a reporter at a London news conference Saturday. The Olympic event may have been the first to have product placement.
Ed Hula III Around the Rings

Olympic reporting veterans like myself (London is Games No. 8) noticed something extraordinary this weekend at the first London 2012 news conference called by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.

The "something" sat there on the podium, directly in front of Rogge: an aquamarine bottle of Powerade, a Coca-Cola product. And next to Rogge, in front of IOC spokesman Mark Adams, was a carefully positioned bottle of caramel-colored Coke. Dozens of photographers and TV cameras were capturing the event; it seemed impossible to miss the OIympic sponsor's products.

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The Two-Way
11:38 am
Tue July 17, 2012

Republican Lawmakers Seek To Block Funding On Black Lung Regulation

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 6:33 pm

Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee have inserted into a broad appropriations bill language that would block funding for a Labor Department effort to reduce the occurrence of black lung, the disease that afflicts coal miners exposed to excessive mine dust.

The bill covers appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013 for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. Tucked away deep inside the measure is this language:

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The Two-Way
2:02 pm
Fri July 13, 2012

Federal Mine Agency Considering Tougher Response On Black Lung

Coal miner Lee Hipshire in 1976, shortly after emerging from a mine in Logan County, W.Va., at the end of his shift. A few years later, Lee took early retirement because of pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. He died at 57.
Courtesy of Earl Dotter

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 8:54 am

NPR and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) have learned that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Labor Department are putting together a team of agency experts and lawyers to specifically consider how to bolster coal mine dust enforcement given the statutory and regulatory weaknesses detailed by NPR and CPI this week in stories about the resurgence of black lung.

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Black Lung Returns To Coal Country
7:21 am
Tue July 10, 2012

Black-Lung Rule Loopholes Leave Miners Vulnerable

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Coal miners rally for black lung law reform on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1975. (See more from Earl Dotter's "Quiet Sickness" series here.)
Courtesy of Earl Dotter

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 10:41 pm

Part two of a two-part series.

Thousands of coal miners continued to suffer and die from black lung during the 40 years that tough new limits on exposure to coal dust were supposed to provide protection.

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Black Lung Returns To Coal Country
5:13 am
Mon July 9, 2012

As Mine Protections Fail, Black Lung Cases Surge

Mark McCowan, 47, was diagnosed with the worst stage of black lung only five years after an X-ray showed he had no sign of the disease.
David Deal for NPR

Originally published on Tue July 10, 2012 5:26 am

Part one of a two-part series.

It wasn't supposed to happen to coal miners in Mark McCowan's generation. It wasn't supposed to strike so early and so hard. At age 47 and just seven years after his first diagnosis, McCowan shouldn't have a chest X-ray that looks this bad.

"I'm seeing more definition in the mass," McCowan says, pausing for deep breaths as he holds the X-ray film up to the light of his living room window in Pounding Mill, Va.

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