Inside Story: Small Market Beat Reporter Delves Where ‘Few Have Looked’
Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer at the Texas Observer and an Ida B. Wells fellow at The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Her coverage of the environment, energy and climate change took top honors in the outstanding beat reporting, small market category in SEJ’s 16th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment.
Her work “elucidates important and under-covered issues while also telling a compelling, digestible story,” the judges said. “Her stories from Texas are a peek into corners of environmental policy where few others have looked.” Sadasivam, who moved to Austin two years ago to join the Observer staff, recently talked with SEJournal features editor Jennifer Dorroh. An edited version of the conversation follows.
SEJournal: You studied chemical engineering before becoming a reporter. Why did you switch to journalism? Does your engineering background inform your reporting?
Naveena Sadasivam: I grew up in Dubai, so I did a couple of internships in the Middle East, at BP and Shell. I did not find the work enjoyable. The weather is brutal in the middle of the desert. And the work environment was very masculine. At a refinery, there would be 5,000 men — and me. It didn’t feel like a viable career path. I had always had one foot in writing, so when I saw that New York University had a science journalism program, I realized it would be a good fit. My science background gives me a bit of an advantage as a reporter. When I see a 1,000-page EPA report, mentally I don’t have a block towards it. I enjoy spending time down in the weeds with a scientific study.
‘I get to see the incremental progress made
by the average citizens who show up
day in and day out to try to improve their
communities. That is uplifting and encouraging.’
SEJournal: After you moved to Texas, how were you able to quickly become an effective beat reporter?
Sadasivam: I attended a lot of commission meetings, making face-to-face contact with sources, getting to knowing the people involved in environment and energy here, building those relationships, learning what they value, what they are focused on. Before moving to Texas, I was in New York, reporting on issues I sometimes felt disconnected from because I was on the phone writing stories based on interviews. Now, if there is a protest, a hearing at a state agency or in the legislature, I’m there talking to folks who are there to testify or protest. Story idea generation ends up happening more organically. I was lucky that the editor of the Observer, Forrest Wilder, is a Texan and a former environmental reporter. He became a mentor, and really helped me understand how things work in Texas.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned so far covering environmental issues in Texas that you or others can apply to future coverage?
Sadasivam: Early on, I had to change the way I approached interviews. Previously, I could assume my sources thought climate change was real. We could start with a common understanding. Here, that was not the way to go about it, and as I proceeded, I realized some of the people I was interviewing might not believe climate change is happening. Also, I had to change the types of stories I wrote. Initially, I went to meetings and tried to write about them. This was not the best approach. Maybe if I were writing for a trade publication, I could cover very dry topics that are super-technical and in the weeds. But the Observer’s audience is the general public.
Reporter Naveena Sadasivam, who won SEJ’s 2017 award for outstanding small market beat reporting for her work at the Texas Observer.
Once, I attended a public utility commission meeting on rate-making. It sounded important, but the more I talked with sources and my editor, the more I realized the rate change would only affect a few people, so it wasn’t a story I should cover. Still, I kept going to meetings as a way to build sources and to get background on the issues. It let me see what was happening on my beat on a day-to-day basis. And I picked up the lingo.
There was a learning curve with FOIA, too. Texas’ public information laws are weaker than those of some other states, and it took some time to understand all the exemptions. It was super frustrating, but through trial and error I learned what to expect, like how they drag out the process. A state agency might respond on the last day of the legal window, then ask a clarifying question, restarting the ten-day clock. Or they might ask the state attorney general for guidance. You learn that if you don’t also write in, the attorney general is more likely to side with the state.
SEJournal: What was it like covering environmental issues during the state’s biennial legislative session in 2017?
Sadasivam: The session is just a few months long, and there are hundreds of bills, many written or at least looked over by powerful lobbyists. For example, there was a bill proposing to modify language in the Texas law about where you can fly your drones. The law prohibits drones above critical infrastructure and specifies what is on that list. It’s mostly dams, nuclear power plants, petrochemical plants. There are obvious security risks associated with those facilities.
This bill would add concentrated animal feedlots [CAFOs] to the list. But what are the security risks with CAFOs? There aren’t any, so I looked at why this bill had been proposed. The reason is that there had been a lot of environmental and animal rights activists using drones to show conditions at CAFOs. The companies that owned the CAFOs were trying to avoid scrutiny.
SEJournal: After you reported on this, what became of the bill?
Sadasivam: Oh, it passed anyway. It became a law. Now, if you get caught flying a drone over a CAFO, it’s a misdemeanor. It’s tough being an environmental reporter. When you’re trying to do accountability reporting, sometimes it’s hard to feel like it matters, because you feel like nothing changes as a result of your reporting. Still, I get to see the incremental progress made by the average citizens who show up day in and day out to try to improve their communities. That is uplifting and encouraging.
I’m upbeat in general about covering these issues in Texas. What’s great here is that you will get feedback very quickly. If someone is unhappy with your coverage, they will let you know. You’re being read very carefully, and what you say matters. It makes me take my job very seriously.
SEJournal: What are your thoughts on the current state of environmental reporting?
Sadasivam: It’s a problem that there aren’t more people of color covering the environmental beat. It shapes how we perceive environmental issues, and it shapes how we talk about these issues.
SEJournal: What solutions would you propose?
Sadasivam: As a profession and professional organization, we should do more to build a pipeline to find young reporters of color at trade publications and provide them opportunities to do more ambitious reporting. It has to start very early in their careers. Editors play a huge part in who gets hired, and who gets promoted. For a busy editor, hiring can feel like one more thing in a long list of things to get done. It may seem simpler to hire someone who can do the job. But there needs to be an extra effort to find candidates of color. Even if it takes longer, we should be spending extra time and extra resources to recruit candidates of color.
Jennifer Dorroh is a freelance journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area, and joined the SEJournal earlier this year as features editor.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 18. 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.