SEJournal Online is the digital news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Learn more about SEJournal Online, including submission, subscription and advertising information.
FEJ StoryLog: Flexibility in the Face of the Unexpected
By Lorraine Boissoneault
When two mining companies made plans to develop copper mines in northeastern Minnesota, it became a great lens for a package of stories that would focus on some of the broader pollution issues in the Great Lakes basins, stories that would also include Indigenous voices.
An editor at the Detroit-based PBS news program “Great Lakes Now” helped me apply for a Fund for Environmental Journalism grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists to pursue the project. The series of stories and a related television program would report on the companies, Poly Met Mining and Twin Metals, and the communities in different parts of the state that would be affected.
At first, the project seemed like it would come together without any big problems. I planned trips to Minnesota in spring 2020, when warmer weather would allow better video footage of rivers and Lake Superior.
I began pre-reporting the story, calling sources to learn about the complicated legal situation of the two proposed mines.
Of course everyone knows what happened next: the declaration of a COVID-19 pandemic in March and the shutdown of most travel.
COVID-19 nixes on-the-ground reporting
Despite the pandemic, I could write stories without traveling to Minnesota. But producing a TV segment was much trickier.
Using Zoom, however, I could interview sources “face to face.” And “Great Lakes Now” hired a videographer for outdoor interviews with some of those sources in Minnesota. Another videographer filmed me talking about my reporting at my apartment in Chicago. He wore a mask the entire time, and I wore a mask when not on camera.
In the end, the “Conflicted Over Copper” TV segment aired in September, several months after the three stories were published online: one about how the mining industry developed around Lake Superior, another on how the PolyMet copper-nickel mine has been trapped in litigation and a third about how technological advances clash with environmental concerns in the Twin Metals case.
Flexibility and empathy
Reporting this story required coping with many unexpected challenges. I wanted to feature a lot of on-the-ground scenes to help readers really connect with the environment and the potential impacts of the copper mines.
I tried to get a sense of my sources’
physical and emotional connections
to these bodies of waters.
Plus, I wanted to witness my sources interacting with Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters and the St. Louis River. Instead, I tried to get a sense of their physical and emotional connections to these bodies of waters (all of which might be affected by the copper mines) through the interviews.
Also, I tried to approach the reporting with a lot of flexibility and empathy. Everyone I spoke with was dealing with the pandemic in one way or another, so I was grateful to them for giving me a little bit of time to talk about the mining issue.
And I tried to be as efficient as possible, because I wanted to be respectful of everything else going on in the lives of my sources.
Developing story ideas helpful
For freelancers considering applying for FEJ grants, it’s really helpful to develop ideas alongside editors you’ve already worked with, or would like to work with.
Having "Great Lakes Now" as a partner throughout the process made things much easier. It also helped me frame the story — which covers a huge issue that has been covered extensively within the state of Minnesota.
I knew that my audience was potentially anyone in the Great Lakes region, not just Minnesotans who might already be very familiar with the issue. This meant I had to go a little broader in explaining the story and what was at stake, but also try to show readers why the issue was important even for those who don’t live in Minnesota.
“Conflicted Over Copper” taught me how to report in a pandemic. Visuals are important to a project like this. Since I couldn’t see the sites myself, I engaged with my sources over the phone and virtually to communicate their views. Flexibility is key to figuring out how to adapt.
Lorraine Boissoneault is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She covers environmental issues, history and archaeology. Previously a staff writer for Smithsonian Magazine, she now writes for outlets like "Great Lakes Now," National Geographic, The Atlantic, Hakai Magazine and others. She is the author of the narrative nonfiction book "The Last Voyageurs."
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 15. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.