One good example: The reporter

  • "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." Karen Dorn Steele, reporter, Spokane Spokesman-Review

    COURTEST IJNR
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -