Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Experiential Journal: Learning from Reporting on Current Environmental Issues

By Deanna Dunsmuir

During my investigation of the Pompton Lakes cleanup of the DuPont Pompton Lakes Works Site and adjacent residential neighborhood, I have reached out to fellow reporters, government officials, company representatives and activists.

The first observation is that activists are more inclined to talk to a reporter about in depth issues than a government official. In general, activists are happy to speak about their struggles and concerns and are quick to offer information they have found.

The same for fellow reporters; to my surprise reaching out to reporters covering similar stories was a great way to obtain sources and gather a list of individuals to contact for interview.

While conducting interviews with officials and company representatives, I quickly learned that the way questions are asked has a lot to do with receiving a reply.

The following are some strategies and tips:

• Conducting an interview via email can be the hardest way to ask difficult questions. It is impossible to create a feel with vocal tone that will relax an individual that may feel attacked with questions.

• Keep in mind that governmental officials and company representatives are on pay roll and have a loyalty to a company that leaves their jobs at stake (unlike an activist or resident). Therefore, legality of a response and unwillingness to be the one to comment makes obtaining answers more difficult.

• After asking an EPA representative difficult questions about the remediation of VOC chemicals with a system that is found to work for a shorter period of time in moldy and wet conditions (the normal conditions of the basements they were installed in), I stopped receiving responses from him.

• Although my questions about the remediation are a concern to residents and something that a reporter is responsible to ask, in my future interviews with officials I changed the way I asked the tough questions in order to obtain a response. The opening I added was “I am writing an article on so and so and I would very much like to add the point of view of (so and so company or town) for balance. I would very much like to offer you a chance to have a say and offer your point of view in the matter.”

Tips such as these have helped me immensely in putting together a balanced article. However, with the many officials I contacted I still did not have enough balance for my article. In this case, and in any case, since we are writing on dead line, I had to read other articles to obtain comments from officials.

As a college student I do have an extremely busy schedule with an internship, work and classes. This has also led to struggles in my reporting; for example, not being able to attend town meetings. I would advise anyone writing an environmental article to attend town meetings as this is where town officials are and you can obtain quotes from their speeches and remarks if they fail to respond to a request for a one on one interview with you.

Because I could not make the meetings, again, my solution was to use quotes from other articles, and of course state what publication the quotes were from.

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