Thursday, November 24, 2011

Journalism when it's done well: A case study

For my writing class I examined this article written over 14 years ago by an investigative journalist at the Seattle Times.  It was an award winning piece that led to sweeping legislation and eventually a book.  It is the type of story that all journalism students hope to complete sometime during their careers.
The Writer: Duff Wilson is an investigative journalist who currently covers the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries for the New York Times.  Prior to arriving on the East Coast in 2004, he was the investigative projects reporter at the Seattle Times where he was a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. 

The Story:  " Fear in the Fields – How Hazardous Wastes Become Fertilizer” is a two-part investigative report published in the Seattle Times on July 3rd and 4th, 1997.  The piece described how certain companies avoid the high costs of hazardous waste disposal by legally ‘recycling’ these toxic substances into fertilizer.

Part One of the story follows Patty Martin, mayor of the small town of Quincy Washington, in her effort to alert the public that farmers in her area were unknowingly using fertilizer made from hazardous waste.  She was prompted to investigate fertilizers after the local branch of the agricultural supply company, Cenex, disposed of hazardous material on a nearby farm and claimed it would benefit the crops. 

Wilson’s story described the division that erupted within the town, as many farmers feared that Martin’s efforts would cause their buyers to go elsewhere for wheat, potatoes, and onions.  Wilson weaved this narrative with an explanation of how by-products of heavy industry get labeled as fertilizer, and examples of this practice in other parts of the country. 

In an interview, Duff Wilson elaborated on his decision to center this part of his piece on Patty Martin and use her story as the narrative spine. “She was very effective in that role,” he said.  He also added, “she was in Quincy raising these questions and she was being attacked by other people in Quincy.  It provided a lot of drama.”

In part two of the story, Wilson moves away from the narrative in Quincy and examines the regulation of fertilizers around the country.  He describes how federal law did not control fertilizer, and how only a few states put limits on the amount of tolerable heavy metals in fertilizer.  The opening lede gives the reader a clear understanding of the discrepancy in state laws.

“When a trucker picks up a load of gray, toxic ash from a metal-processing plant in California, he hangs a "hazardous waste" sign on his rig. On crossing the border into Nevada, he takes the sign down. In that state, what he's carrying is no longer considered hazardous waste, but fertilizer ingredients.”

Wilson then showed the differing regulatory approaches in North America by continuing to follow the hypothetical hazardous waste hauling trucker.  He said,  “when he got to British Columbia, he'd be turned away at the border.”

Then the piece turned to examine the sway of the fertilizer industry in Congress.  It cited, for example, how a proposal, to ban fertilizers containing more than .1 percent lead, was killed by Congressional allies of the fertilizer industry.

The Aftermath:  Legislators in a number of capitals introduced bills to regulate heavy metals in fertilizer following the publication of this article.  Washington State, for example, passed a law in 1999 putting explicit limits on the amount of metals allowed in fertilizer.

For many, this was seen as a victory for the overall health of vegetable eaters. But Patty Martin was upset with this legislation.  She believed it legalized the process, and wanted to see a sweeping law banning the inclusion of all hazardous waste in fertilizer. 

Additionally, following the publication, Martin lost her re-election bid for mayor, and her husband lost his job at the local potato processing plant.  The Martins attributed this to the anger of many in the food producing community caused by the article and by Patty’s activism in general. 

The piece was a Pulitzer finalist, and in 2001 Duff Wilson published a book about the story entitled, “Fateful Harvest, The True Story of a Small Town, a Global Industry, and a Toxic Secret.”

The Reporting:  When Patty Martin first contacted Duff Wilson he was skeptical.  He had never heard of companies using hazardous waste in fertilizer but nevertheless was intrigued enough to make the two-hour drive to Quincy to speak with Martin and others.  After recognizing there was a story, he realized the uniqueness of the phenomenon. “It was really a new concept, a new paradigm really,” he said

Wilson also understood, however, that he might have trouble finding sources because not many academics or government officials were aware of this practice.  As a result, he had to look outside of the Northwest to find information.  He learned of a California government task force holding a meeting on the matter and attended.  He found, however, that the group was funded by the fertilizer industry and did not provide useful data.  

He eventually spoke with academics in Alabama, Kansas, and Texas, and regulators in California and Washington DC. The entire reporting process was lengthy.  Wilson stated, “it was a long time, I think it was on the order of nine months to a year.”

Also, while reporting, he was concerned about possible future litigation because of another recent report involving Washington State agriculture.  In that piece, 60 Minutes had made mistakes while reporting on the chemical Alar and its use on apples. Apple growers, many in the Quincy area, were angered by this story and brought a case against CBS.

Wilson explains,  “I was worried about it really because of the legal actions involving Alar.” But he noted that after publication no one brought any libel suits.  

“There was never any suggestion of that because I was pretty careful,” he said. 

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