Lee received $1,000 in the 35th annual competition administered by Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.
Dean Joan Konner of the Journalism School presented the award yesterday during ceremonies in the World Room of the School.
Lee's three-part series, "Another America: Life on 129th Street," portrays the violent and dispirited lives of drug dealers and addicts, welfare recipients and children overwhelmed by a multitude of ills.
Lee spent months on the street interviewing residents for the articles, which paint a grim picture of lives hobbled by anger, poverty, violence and despair.
Journalism Professor Helen Benedict, who was chairman of the faculty selection committee, said Lee's "honest, detailed and frank account" of life on 129th St. was in the best tradition of Mike Berger, a legendary reporter for The New York Times whose stories reflected his affection for New York City and its people.
"She looked at ordinary people in New York struggling with extraordinary circumstances, in this case poverty, despair and the corrosion of hope, without ever stereotyping or sentimentalizing her subjects."
Lee joined the metro reporting staff of The Times in 1988 after working for The Miami Herald, The Cincinnati Enquirer and USA Today. A native of Chicago, she is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
The Mike (Meyer) Berger award was established in 1960, a year after the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter's death, by Louis Schweitzer, a New York industrialist and admirer of Berger's writing.
Honoring "distinguished reporting in the Mike Berger tradition," the award has been made possible since 1971 through the generosity of Mr. Schweitzer's widow, Lucille Lortel Schweitzer, a theatrical producer.
Journalism Professors Peter Herford and Ari Goldman joined Benedict on the selection committee.