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Inside Story: Two Communities, Two Hazards and the Two Award-Winners Reporting Them
Our latest Inside Story features not one but two recent winners in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2020 annual awards for reporting on the environment: Undark’s Nancy Averett and Grist’s Zoya Teirstein. The two were honored in the small newsroom or circulation category for their coverage related to public health and environmental justice issues.
Averett took first place for outstanding feature story for her coverage of the residents of Avalon, Pa., some of whom were diagnosed with asthma, autism or cancer after the research community failed to study and understand the impacts of air pollution from a local coke plant. SEJ’s judges said the article, “Undone Science: When Research Fails Polluted Communities,” was an “articulate, well-researched and persuasive plea to scientists for data that acknowledges the environmental challenges facing towns, families and their children. … It is a powerful reminder that for every Flint, Michigan, there are hundreds of Avalons.”
Teirstein, meanwhile, earned third place in the same category for her feature, “Alaskan Roulette,” which judges said “brings an immediate sense of danger to this public health story,” exploring the link between a naturally occurring shellfish toxin and climate change told through the voices of Native Alaskans and focused on their experiences and dilemmas.
Averett and Teirstein shared their stories with us, in this edited Q&A.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Averett: While working on a different story about citizen science, a source mentioned that she felt some scientists who helped residents of Flint, Michigan, had not given those residents enough of a say throughout the process. She felt the residents should have had a stronger voice in deciding which scientific questions to ask and also in interpreting the data. I asked this source for an example of a scientist doing that kind of work and she came back with Barbara Allen, a Virginia Tech researcher, who led a community-based participatory study in a polluted area of France. Allen mentioned the idea of "undone science" — a science not undertaken due to political or financial reasons or what have you, even if a group of concerned people believes it to merit investigation — and I was intrigued.
Teirstein: I first learned about Alexandrium catenella, an ultrapoisonous type of algae that lurks along ocean coasts, at a journalism fellowship in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The algae, which contains a potent biotoxin impossible to detect through taste, touch or smell, accumulates in natural water filters, like clams and mussels. The toxin can’t be fried, baked or frozen out of shellfish. Once consumed, it causes an illness called paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP – which can trigger total paralysis of the system. PSP can lead to death in as few as 30 minutes. I started research on what would become a year-long investigative project in my hotel room that same night. What coastal states had programs to protect residents from paralytic shellfish poisoning? A few days later I had my answer: Every state except Alaska, which has more coastline than all of the other states in the U.S. combined. It’s the only state in the U.S. where people still die of PSP.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Averett: I found "undone science" more challenging to write about because it is more of a philosophical concept than hard science. The people who study it (mostly social scientists) are looking for something nonexistent, which is a strange concept for scientists to grasp. [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] scientists, for instance, did a study on soil contamination after Hurricane Katrina. They took soil samples and analyzed them and concluded the soil was safe. But when Brown University Professor Scott Frickel looked more closely, he determined they didn't really sample enough soil to make such a conclusion, thus he'd found a case of "undone science." For my story, I needed to find a situation in the U.S. of "undone science." I wasn't sure how to find such a story until I spoke with Drexel University Professor Gwen Ottinger. She suggested I look at the situation in Avalon, Pennsylvania. She knew a colleague at Carnegie Mellon University who had recently used some state-of-the-art camera technology to show what citizens had been saying for decades — a local plant was violating all kinds of pollution laws. Her suggestion turned out to be a good one. The camera was able to zoom in on one plant and see things the residents couldn't see and it may have led to the plant's closure. When I went to Avalon, the plant had just closed and residents were eager to talk about this victory.
‘I ultimately had to get on a plane to find
my sources. ... There are some stories
you just have to get up and go get.’
— Zoya Teirstein
Teirstein: Initially I had a really hard time finding people who would speak with me. I tried as hard as I could to reach out to members of the Alutiiq and Sun'aq tribes from the Grist office in Seattle, but I ultimately had to get on a plane to find my sources. Once I got to Kodiak, everything fell into place. There are some stories you just have to get up and go get. I'm lucky my editor agreed to take a chance on the story.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting or findings?
Averett: I originally wanted to go to France to talk to people there about Allen's work. I couldn't get funding to travel there, and in the end, only a tiny part of that study was part of my story. But I found it fascinating how people who lived near polluting factories in France were fighting pollution, but their frustration with government came not from a dearth of studies (as is the case in the United States) but from studies that didn't capture what they wanted to know: whether or not the pollution was harming their health. In other words, the French government was more than willing to spend some money and do some science. However, the investigations consistently concluded there "might" be a problem, but more research was needed. (A local doctor who was so frustrated by this finally went to the local school and counted the number of diabetic lunches they were preparing and showed the schools had very high numbers of kids with diabetes compared to other regions.) So both the American residents in Avalon and the French residents were very frustrated by their government's response to the pollution around them, albeit for somewhat different reasons.
Teirstein: I was surprised by a couple of things. I was stunned to learn how little Alaska's government is doing to protect its Indigenous communities. And then I was also surprised by the stark differences in opinion within those communities on the subject of shellfish harvesting. Some folks will never touch a mussel or clam again for fear of falling ill. Others take that chance on a daily basis.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Averett: My struggle was to decide who I should focus on for my story. I worked with several editors and one was initially wary of focusing on Deborah Blackburn and her two sons with autism, because autism isn't always associated with air pollution. However, there’s increasing evidence of air pollution causing all sorts of poor health outcomes — and there are some studies showing breathing particulate pollution while pregnant raises your risk of having a child with autism. Accordingly, I thought she was a good fit. I also thought many people could relate to her story. She moved to a community to raise her family and assumed the government was keeping her safe, and then she has two children with serious disabilities and she's left wondering if her decision to live in Avalon was the cause.
Teirstein: This story felt important from the jump. No one else had reported on PSP in Alaska Native communities before. There are people in Kodiak who rely on subsistence harvesting to survive, and rising temperatures in Alaska are making many subsistence food sources harder to find. So for some, shellfish harvesting is really a matter of life and death. That's what prompted me to dig into this story and ultimately travel to Kodiak. I'm glad I did.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?
Averett: I'd find a way to get to France to tell that part of the story! I also wished I could have included a community of color more in the story because they are disproportionately exposed to pollution and undone science. (I also traveled to and interviewed people in a town outside of New Orleans with high pollution, but a lot of that was left out of the final story.)
Teirstein: Someone in journalism school once told me to sit down after every leg of a reporting trip and write out everything that happened — all the exciting bits especially — right away. I wish I had done more of that in Kodiak. At the time, it felt like I never had a second to spare. If I could do it over again I would have made more time for note-taking and brought three more notebooks.
‘Communicate early and often with
your editor. ... Both the writer and editor
want the same thing: a great story.’
— Nancy Averett
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story?
Averett: Communicate early and often with your editor. I struggled with organizing my writing and reporting when I sat down to write and I hadn't really communicated much with my editor. As a freelancer that sometimes happens because editors are so busy and we worry we will be bothering them, plus no one wants to admit they're struggling. But you have to get over that and press on since both the writer and editor want the same thing: a great story.
Teirstein: I was only in Kodiak for a week, but I learned an immense amount about the Alaskan way of life during that short time. I don't think I could have gotten the same feel for the place or the threats people there face from my office in Seattle. You don't necessarily have to get on a plane, bus or train to write a great place-based story (I am all too aware that newsroom budgets don't always allow for that) but if you can do it, you should do it.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Averett: I think detail is what makes a great feature so grab as much information as you can — documents, videos, historic newspaper articles, FOIA requests, etc. Also go back to your sources more than once because they'll remember things they forgot the first time you interviewed them. I had numerous conversations with Deborah Blackburn that allowed me to paint a rich picture of her life.
Teirstein: Bring a lot of notebooks and writing utensils, don't be shy about talking to people anywhere and everywhere, and make sure the place you're going to has a grocery store.
SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism that wasn’t captured above?
Averett: I'm grateful to the folks at Undark for taking a chance on this idea and to the SEJ judges for recognizing the story. Winning this award has been a huge boost to my morale during this very strange year that has been full of uncertainty. I know the people of Avalon were also really happy about the award.
Teirstein: My favorite part of reporting this story out was witnessing the myriad and creative ways people band together to protect each other. As to the effects climate change continues to impact communities across the world, it’s important to remember that some of the best climate solutions are grown at the local level.
Nancy Averett is a former newspaper reporter turned freelance science and environmental journalist. Originally from Golden, Colo., she has lived and worked in Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Luxembourg and now Cincinnati, Ohio. She enjoys telling stories about environmental health, wildlife conservation and people coping with pollution and climate change. She writes for Discover, Scientific American, Audubon, Sierra, Hakai and other outlets.
Zoya Teirstein is a reporter at Grist. She covers clams, ticks, politicians and other creatures affected by climate change. Her writing can be found in Mother Jones, Slate, HuffPost and other places.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 34. 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.