Photos by Aaron Nelson
There’s a reason many of the movies about journalism center on investigative reporting. It’s where the juicy stories are. Stories like Watergate (“All the President’s Men”) and the Catholic priest sex scandals (“Spotlight”) wouldn’t have become the major cultural phenomena they are without the footwork of investigative reporters.
Stories like these, that hold the powerful accountable and expose institutional failures and corruption, are not only entertaining, they are a public service. The value of public-interest-focused investigative journalism forms the backbone of Assistant Professor Brent Walth’s investigative reporting class.
In Walth’s class, student groups worked on stories that run the gamut of Oregon life: healthcare, homelessness, institutional racism, campaign finance and environmental health. I worked with a group to document and tell a story about Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, which hasn’t been keeping up on its water permits for over a decade.
Working on this story in Walth’s class was my first experience as an investigative journalist, and it will forever shape the way I approach journalism. I may not become an investigative journalist per se, but I will always use the tools of investigative journalism in my reporting.
As an investigative journalist, you have two main questions to answer: Is this story in the public interest? And can I prove that the claims made in the article are true?
When developing a public interest story, you need to make sure it meets specific criteria. Perhaps the most important is making sure that your story is interesting. You could have piles of documents and any number of telling details, but if there are no interesting characters or some sort of controversy, you probably don’t have a story worth working on.
For the story we produced for EW, the public interest angle was that the state agency in charge of water quality permits was chronically out of date in issuing permits to the state’s biggest water polluters. This backlog of permits has created a situation where many industries and municipalities are not being held to current environmental standards and practices, which jeopardizes the health of Oregon’s rivers for humans and salmon alike.
Once you figure out that you have an interesting topic, you need to know where to look for the documents that tell the story. While this might seem straightforward, it is actually one of the most difficult tasks and important tools for an investigative journalist. A major focus of Walth’s class was learning how to navigate state and federal databases to find public records. Walth drew on his own career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and brought in investigative journalists from throughout the state to teach us the tools of the trade.
Our story on the permit backlog revolved around public records that we found through the DEQ’s website. These records not only proved the extent of the problem, but had the DEQ in its own words saying that it is often reluctant to hold polluters to new standards because of the costs businesses and municipalities might incur.
Once we had these documents, we had to talk with the people involved with the issue to put a human face on this story. We interviewed officials from DEQ, environmental attorneys, permit holders, water permit compliance officers and a business association to better understand the issue and figure out what it means for Oregon’s water.
Working on this story with my group and Walth, I learned a lot about the reporting process as well as how to present an investigative story. As an aspiring environmental journalist, it was a great opportunity to get familiar with the state agency responsible for regulating the quality of air and water in our state.
This story also helped me get a foot in the door at Eugene Weekly, where I am currently a reporting intern. I would encourage any journalism student to take Walth’ class to learn the skills and values of investigative journalism from Walth, a fellow UO grad and one of the most accomplished and highly regarded journalists in the state.
Carl Segerstrom is a student in the SOJC’s Professional Journalism Master’s program graduating this June and a reporting intern at Eugene Weekly. He is looking forward to pursuing a career in print journalism with a focus on investigative and environmental reporting.