Sam Sanson ’20 Wins Denver Press Club Award

Five-part podcast series published as senior thesis

Samantha "Sam" Sanson '20, a film and media studies major and journalism minor, has received The Denver Press Club 's top award for her impressive student journalism.

Sanson's work includes a podcast called "Per-sistence," an in-depth series that explores toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances- PFAS for short - and their impact on a community just south of Colorado Springs. The five-part podcast series was produced as her senior thesis.

Sanson's reporting on PFAS was notable for its ambition and execution, says Environmental Program Visiting Assistant Professor Tyler Cornelius, who was one of Sanson's thesis advisers.

"PFAS pollution is a very difficult subject to communicate with any type of nuance, and the local story she reports is full of just that," he says. "There are very few journalists in the entire country who have put in the time and effort to detail the ups and downs, the contradictions and tragedies of our local PFAS tragedy and what it has meant for the families who have lost loved ones and the many others who are struggling to have their voices heard.

"Sam reported this story for nearly a year, built relationships with local community members, national experts, and other key stakeholders involved in this important environmental justice issue," says Cornelius. "I can't stress this enough: Sam's work in investigating and reporting this story is exceptional."

The judges agreed, with Daniel Petty, president of The Denver Press Club, noting that several of the judges cited Sanson's podcast as "something that really pushed her over the edge" to secure the top prize.

Sanson took visiting Assistant Professor Corey Hutchins' Block 7 Introduction to Journalism last year, and the following block, he asked if she was interested in a summer environmental podcasting opportunity. She was, and soon thereafter met with Cornelius to learn more about the project.

"It was a short meeting, but I knew this was a story that needed to be told and felt honored I would have the chance to tell it," she says.

She spent the summer of 2019 as a research fellow for the Fountain Valley Water Project, an interdisciplinary research team led by Cornelius and Eli Fahrenkrug, assistant professor of chemistry, exploring various ways to help Fountain Valley residents deal with PFAS contamination. The summer research informed her thesis, the "Per-sistence" podcast, which she worked on with the Colorado College Journalism Institute.

The podcast series reveals the depth and breadth of Sanson's research.

"I had never heard of PFAS before. Which is crazy considering there's probably millions of people drinking these toxic chemicals," she says. "So, I was really starting from scratch."

To that end, she spent the month of June 2019 learning about the chemicals.

She says that, "In the end, starting from scratch was really valuable to the project. I wanted to make the podcast accessible to everyone and remembering the initial questions I had in May [2019] was helpful to that the process."

Sanson, who is from Littleton, Colorado, also has produced several documentary films. One, which she made with Ella Grossman '20 in a documentary film class taught by Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies Dylan Nelson, who also served as one of Sanson's thesis advisers, explores the lives of young rural Colorado camel farmers. Another, which was a Keller Venture Grant project, looks at young musicians in Ireland - both of which Rocky Mountain PBS has aired. Her other work covered city politics for CC's NPR-member station, 91.5 KRCC.

"The judges were really impressed with the range of her storytelling abilities," says Petty, of The Denver Press Club. "The diversity of storytelling that she produced was deep, it was authentic, and it was empathetic as well."

"This is an important story for our community and our state," says Steven Hayward, associate professor of English and director of CC's Journalism Institute. "Sam not only tells it but does so in an utterly absorbing way. It's an ambitious and impressive work of audio journalism - hundreds of people have already downloaded it."

Each year, The Denver Press Club, the oldest in the nation, awards scholarships to journalism and communications students who attend colleges and schools across the state. In 2019, The Denver Press Club's board voted to expand journalism scholarships for students at additional schools, including Colorado College.



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