Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The Big Story Written Small."
Few environment reporters can claim the beat longevity, dogged determination and data-crunching appetite of Karen Dorn Steele of The Spokesman-Review, the daily paper in Spokane, Wash. Steele’s pioneering work uncovered Cold War secrets at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the 1980s, demonstrating how a reporter at a regional newspaper can have a national impact. She helped force the federal government to begin cleaning up Hanford’s pervasive and dangerous nuclear contamination, and then she uncovered how the cleanup project itself wasted billions of tax dollars.
Steele’s willingness to stay in Spokane and follow the same stories for more than 20 years has provided the newspaper with levels of cumulative knowledge and skill that are rare among journalists. What makes her go beyond the routine? She believes her history major in college, and her father’s work in the U.S. State Department, helped interest her in the proper role of government, the problems of secrecy and the value of long-range perspective.
Steele focused on Hanford beginning in the early 1980s, when the location was proposed as the possible site for a national nuclear waste depository. She started asking questions about the site’s suitability, and was “struck by how much we didn’t know about Hanford,” she says. “All the environmental information was classified. That struck me as a bit odd. It wasn’t as if we were asking about weapons secrets.”
She filed a request for government documents, using the Freedom of Information Act, and began a probe that snowballed as environmental groups and other journalists joined in. The Spokesman-Review, which is owned by the Cowles family and known for solid journalism, was put under some strain as it backed her work. The newspaper’s attorney, Duane Swinton, proved a valuable ally when the paper went to court half a dozen times to push for document releases that would eventually total millions of pages.
Hanford isn’t that close to Spokane — it straddles the Columbia River about 130 miles away. Steele recalls that she had “some real arguments with editors early on” about the story’s importance. She spent many nights of her own time poring over documents. But Chris Peck, who was then her managing editor, became convinced of the story’s worthiness. He remained supportive, despite the ambitious scale of the undertaking.
“I was given an extraordinary amount of leeway,” Steele says. She acknowledges that covering the environment beat can make a reporter unpopular in a community. “I think environmental reporters have to develop a thick hide and get to the truth. It’s extremely important to be fair, but on the other hand, you have to tell what really went on — to show that you care.”
Her advice for younger environment reporters is to take time to understand the technical terminology, to recognize that the environment is a political story, and to tell the story through interesting people and lively anecdotes. “Young reporters should recognize it’s an important beat, not a faddish beat,” she says. “The issues aren’t going away, and you can have a real interesting career.”
—Excerpted, with some editing, from Matching the Scenery: Journalism’s Duty to the North American West.