SEJ Grant Program Has Real Impact on Reporting

April 15, 2012
CB Smith-Dahl. Photo by Tehea Robie.

SEJ News


Fund for Environmental Journalism supports 31 projects in two years


CB Smith-Dahl got the means to investigate toxic contamination in her own California community — and an introduction to the challenges and rewards of environmental journalism. Sue Sturgis, a veteran journalist from North Carolina, gained “the luxury of time” to spend a week in Louisiana’s coastal communities researching a series on the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.

Those are just two of the more than 30 reporting projects and ventures aided by the SEJ’s Fund for Environmental Journalism in its first two years. They illustrate the varied ways in which the fund has helped new and seasoned journalists alike pursue new ideas and dig beneath the surface, with money for travel, training and getting their stories an audience.

One grant allows environmental coverage on people of color

“The grant really allowed me to grow as a journalist,” said Smith-Dahl, who spent four months last year intensively reporting on polluted properties in West Oakland for Oakland Local, a nonprofit online news site co-founded by long-time Society of Environmental Journalists member Amy Gahran.

Smith-Dahl, a West Oakland resident with experience in film-making and celebrity journalism, was recruited to follow up on a series, Bay Area Toxic Tour, done in 2009 by, another noncommercial news site. Where that series focused on air pollution, Smith-Dahl’s, “Toxic Tour II, Right Beneath Our Feet,” concentrated on how current and former “brownfields” were affecting one of Oakland’s most environmentally challenged areas, which is bounded by freeways.

It was a story that resonated with Smith-Dahl, who’s lived there since 2005, and wonders if it’s affected her and her children’s health. She has a nagging cough, she said, and has had her 9-year-old twins tested for lead poisoning because of the area’s extensive soil contamination (results negative). Her personal stake in the story also extends to her mixed African-American and white parentage.

“There aren’t that many people of color reporting on issues (like this),” she said, “and a lot of environmental reporting doesn’t happen in cities. That felt really good, to have that perspective and to do that reporting that’s essential.”

In addition to the $1,000 grant from FEJ, Smith-Dahl said her reporting benefited from mentoring by Gahran and one of SEJ’s founding members, Rae Tyson. Besides writing stories for the website, she recorded audio and video interviews, took still photographs and even developed an interactive web page, seeking to engage community members in a dialog about what defines West Oakland. The grant not only covered some of her expenses, it enabled her to experiment with presenting her reporting in varied media.

The interactive drew only one comment, but the narrated slideshow got “an incredible number of hits,” she said, and her series had other kinds of impact as well. Environmental officials seemed to become less dismissive of residents’ questions about the safety of remedial work planned when they realized she was covering their community meetings, she said.

“As a journalist and resident, it was really great to have the funding to dig deep, talk to local advocates (and others) and spend some time walking the neighborhood. It’s my understanding that kind of ‘beat’ journalism doesn’t happen anymore. I was really invigorated by that kind of journalism and see how it’s a guarantor of democracy.”

She also had the satisfaction of seeing one of her stories — about a novel remediation technique using fish bones to neutralize the lead in the soil — get picked up a month later in The New York Times.

Though the grant funds have been used up, Smith-Dahl says she’s still following developments. “I’m really excited to continue to do this kind of reporting. I feel like the grant made it possible for me to join the league of exceptional environmental reporting.”

New round of funding backs wide array of projects

The Fund for Environmental Journalism got launched in 2010 with seed money from SEJ’s budget, but since then it’s drawn a steady stream of individual donations. It’s also garnered significant support from the Grantham Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, plus a surprise unsolicited gift from the Cornelius King Foundation, according to Beth Parke, SEJ’s executive director.

As the fund has grown, it’s been able to back more projects in both new and mainstream media, including a few with international reach.

In four rounds of grant-giving since summer 2010, FEJ had provided full or partial support to 31 projects through January of this year. The vast majority of the awards covered travel expenses, but some funds also went to document-access fees, Web site training and in one case for lead emission testing.

In the January round alone, funded projects focus on American cities and suburbs, Appalachia and the Amazon and promise to shed light on issues related to mining, the food system, air pollution, land use, and invasive plants.

Not every FEJ-supported project has worked out as planned.

Bob Berwyn, editor of the independent nonprofit news site Summit County Citizens Voice, got $400 for travel expenses to do a multimedia online report on climate change and water pollution in Colorado and Utah.

Berwyn says the FEJ grant wasn’t enough by itself, and he wasn’t able to raise sufficient additional funds to make the month-long trip he’d planned from the Colorado River’s headwaters to the Utah line. But he did put the FEJ grant to good use, he says, strengthening coverage of Colorado River issues.

“The funding did help me put some extra time toward reporting Colorado River issues a couple of summers ago,” he said in an email. “I was able to take a few extra days to attend some workshops and conferences where I did some live blogging and tweeting. Along with a volunteer citizen journalist, I also did a one-day tour of water diversions in Grand County and put together a video report.”

Grant supports in-depth reporting on Gulf spill

One grant that paid off was a probing five-part investigationof the Gulf spill’s health impacts in Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies. The series by Editorial Director Sue Sturgis and Facing South Publisher Chris Kromm is the kind of in-depth reporting all too rarely seen in newspapers anymore.

Sturgis said she has been regularly visiting the Gulf region since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for Facing South and Southern Exposure, the North Carolina-based institute’s printed magazine. But after the BP offshore well blowout, she said they wanted to take a more intensive look at the impact of the prolonged spill on Louisiana’s coastal communities.

“FEJ gave us the luxury of time,” Sturgis said. (FEJ guidelines actually preclude paying for a journalist’s time or for equipment. In this case, Sturgis meant that the grant enabled her and publisher Kromm to spend an entire week reporting in depth, a longer stay than they’d been able to afford on previous reporting trips).

“The oil disaster wasn’t over when the well was capped,” Sturgis explained. “What we found was sort of a slow-motion disaster that was unreeling even a year after the oil spill (with) alot of people suffering from the oil spill.”

The series reported on health problems among cleanup workers and coastal residents, and it examined how the regulatory system had failed to prevent harmful exposures. But it also tackled the broader issue of the energy industry's role in the Gulf, the political power wielded by it and other industry interests to thwart regulatory reform, and how their health concerns have turned ordinary citizens into grassroots activists.

“People were pleased that somebody was paying attention,” she said of the reaction she and Kromm got in Louisiana communities to their visits. “One of the things you hear from people in the region was that the powers-that-be have been in a hurry to say the disaster’s over, everything’s fine, it’s okay to eat seafood, okay to start drilling again.”

Facing South’s reporting was picked up in other media outlets and blogs, and other news organizations did similar reporting on post-BP spill health concerns. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., also pledged to follow up with BP on medical claims and to hold a meeting addressing health problems related to the spill, according to the institute’s web site.

Sturgis said she’s planning to return to the Gulf this year to follow up, but with a focus this time on how the Gulf spill’s legacy may play out in this year’s election.

“For us this is really an ongoing project,” Sturgis said. She’s grateful for the support she’s been able to get from FEJ, especially considering all the other stories seeking funding.

“I’m just always so blown away when you look at the (grant) winners, you think, ‘What great projects!’” she said. “You just wish there was a lot more money to fund other projects. There’s so much happening on the environmental news front, and such shrinking coverage, which really worries me. That’s why FEJ and everything SEJ does is so important.”

Tim Wheeler covers the environment for The Baltimore Sun. He has written on environmental topics frequently in his 38-year journalistic career. His reporting on the Chesapeake Bay, childhood lead poisoning, growth and other subjects has won multiple awards. He’s a former president and board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. During his time on the board, he helped launch the Fund for Environmental Journalism and has since assisted with reviewing FEJ grant proposals.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2012. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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