Howard Berkes Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
Howard Berkes
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Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes
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Howard Berkes

Correspondent, Investigations

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 record levels. 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. In 2015 and 2016, Berkes collaborated with ProPublica on Insult to Injury, a series of stories about a "race to the bottom" in workers' compensation benefits across the country, which won the IRE Medal from Investigative Reporters & Editors, the nation's top award for investigative reporting, among other major journalism awards. Berkes has garnered four IRE awards for investigative reporting since 2014.

Before moving to the Investigations Unit, 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 among troops from rural areas. Berkes has covered the impact of rural voters on presidential and congressional elections.

Berkes has also covered eight summer and winter Olympic games, beginning with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 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' Olympic and investigative reporting have made him a resource to other news organizations, including The PBS Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, A&E's Investigative Reports, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the French magazine L'Express, Al Jazeera America and others.

In 1981, Berkes became one of NPR's first national reporters and was based in Salt Lake City, where he pioneered NPR's coverage of the interior of the American West and public lands issues. He traveled thousands of miles 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, and he has served as 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 the efforts to redesign the Space Shuttle's rocket boosters.

In 2016, Berkes revisited the 1986 Challenger story with an update on one of the booster rocket engineers who tried to stop the Challenger launch and who was an anonymous source in the Berkes-Zwerdling report. The engineer, 89-year-old Bob Ebeling, was frail and in hospice care when he told Berkes that he still shouldered guilt for the deaths of the Challenger astronauts. The resulting story prompted hundreds of NPR listeners and readers to write supportive messages, which helped ease Ebeling's guilt. He died a few weeks later – at peace, his family said.

A multi-year investigation of a resurgence of black lung disease among coal miners, and an epidemic of the most severe stage of the disease, resulted in a PBS Frontline television documentary in January 2019, which included Berkes as on-air correspondent and narrator.

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 with more than 40 major journalism awards, including those given by the American Psychological Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, the Online News Association, the National Press Club, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, the UCLA Anderson Loeb Awards, and the National Association of Science Writers.

Berkes also won five Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative, sports, feature, and online audio reporting.

Berkes has trained news reporters in workshops across the country 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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Story Archive

Al Haynes, Who Captained United Flight 232 When It Crashed In Sioux City, Dies At 87

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A guard sits in his truck at the entrance to the Darby Coal Mine in Holmes Mill, Kentucky, on May 20, 2006 - the day an explosion in the mine killed five miners. The owners of the mine later failed to pay nearly $3 million in penalties for mine safety violations at Darby and other mines. Wade Payne/AP hide caption

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Wade Payne/AP

On Tuesday, coal miners Danny Smith (left) and Greg Kelly are expected on Capitol Hill, where they'll ask lawmakers to fully restore a tax that pays for medical care for miners diagnosed with black lung. Both have the worst stage of the disease after years of mining. Rich-Joseph Facun for NPR hide caption

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Rich-Joseph Facun for NPR

Gary Hairston, a coal miner for 27 years, spoke at the hearing. He has been diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the advanced stage of black lung disease. House Committee on Education and Labor hide caption

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House Committee on Education and Labor

Coal Miners Grapple With Black Lung And Their Futures After Decades On The Job

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Coal miner Nick Stiltner reviews an X-ray of his lungs showing black lung disease at the Stone Mountain Clinic in Grundy, Va. Courtesy of Elaine McMillion Sheldon/PBS Frontline hide caption

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Courtesy of Elaine McMillion Sheldon/PBS Frontline

Regulators Failed To Stop An Epidemic That Is Killing Thousands Of Coal Miners

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"There's a lot of memories here, some good, some bad," says Smith, while reflecting on his years working at the now defunct Solid Energy mine in Pike County. Rich-Joseph Facun for NPR hide caption

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Rich-Joseph Facun for NPR

An Epidemic Is Killing Thousands Of Coal Miners. Regulators Could Have Stopped It

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In central Appalachia, the black lung rate for working coal miners with at least 25 years experience underground is the highest it's been in a quarter century. Don Klumpp/Getty Images hide caption

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Don Klumpp/Getty Images

A roof bolter secures the roof of a newly mined section of a coal mine. Studies show roof bolters sometimes have high exposure to the silica dust that is especially toxic to lungs. Thorney Lieberman/Getty Images hide caption

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Thorney Lieberman/Getty Images

Sheralin Greene, 57, mined coal for 20 years. She now suffers paralyzing coughing fits from black lung and receives payments and medical care from the federal trust fund. Courtesy of Sheralin Greene hide caption

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Courtesy of Sheralin Greene

The rate of the advanced stage of the deadly disease black lung is growing in central Appalachia, according to a new study. Tyler Stableford/Getty Images hide caption

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Tyler Stableford/Getty Images

New Studies Confirm A Surge In Coal Miners' Disease

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Scientific Studies Confirm A Spike In Black Lung Disease

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Excised and preserved lungs on display at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Morgantown, W.Va., in 2012, show the dramatic effect of black lung disease. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

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Howard Berkes/NPR

Severe black lung disease deeply scarred the lung of a 61-year-old West Virginia coal miner, which was removed as part of a lung transplant. Courtesy of NIOSH hide caption

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Courtesy of NIOSH

Kentucky Lawmakers Limit Black Lung Claims Reviews Despite Epidemic

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