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
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Central Colorado Conservancy, located in Salida, Colorado, is seeking a Conservation Program Manager dedicated to managing the Conservancy's land protection program which includes developing and...
  • PUBLIC LANDS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a candidate with excellent communication skills and a commitment to environmental conservation for the position of Public Lands Program Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Western Slope Conservation Center in Paonia, CO, seeks a dynamic leader who is mission-driven, hardworking, and a creative problem-solver. WSCC is committed to creating...
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.