Story by Katherine Smith
Video by Aaron Nelson
Find the yardstick; show people how things should be, and then show them how things really are.
That was the theme of Brent Walth’s Investigative Reporting class. Walth also taught us that within each investigative story, there is a killer fact — a fact that can’t be debated, is backed up by documentation and clearly represents the “yardstick.”
Twice a week, I was lucky enough to sit around a table with 15 other passionate and intelligent student journalists for this class. Our guest lectures ranged from a state senator to a recent UO grad. I found it to be daunting but empowering, and without a doubt valuable for any journalism student.
Once Walth taught us the basics of the investigative journalist’s role and techniques, he split us up into groups to report our own investigative stories. Because it’s crucial for members of our community to know what is in our water, my group was tasked with looking into Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.
It didn’t take long to discover that the DEQ is allowing more than 100 businesses and municipalities to dump waste and toxins into the state’s water streams without proper, updated permits. In fact, in Oregon, 75 percent of large industrial and municipal plants are running on outdated permits, which means they are not being held to up-to-date standards for the chemical waste they’re dumping. This lack of accountability, ultimately, is resulting in hostile water conditions for both humans and fish, especially salmon.
Working in a group on this type of assignment was a unique experience. Since an investigative piece requires hours of combing through documents and conducting interviews, tackling it as a team made a huge difference.
While the public documents necessary for our story were all online, our most challenging task was getting a hold of credible, authoritative sources to confirm and quote. Sifting through numbers and documents was difficult, but with the help of Doug Quirke, a research assistant and attorney with the UO School of Law; Nina Bell, executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates; and our insightful professor, Walth, we were able to analyze the documents and organize the permits to pick out the major players.
I’ll never forget collaborating with Carl Segerstrom as we prepared to interview Keith Anderson, DEQ’s adviser for water program improvement. After hearing that a public relations professional would be in the meeting with us, we knew we needed to have a plan.
Moments before the interview, Carl turned to me with a straight face and said, “You’re good cop; I’m bad cop. You get the interview going, and then I’ll come in hot with the big questions. If things get feisty, you jump in, take over the questions, and we’ll let things simmer.”
Fortunately, the interview went smoothly. Anderson was completely transparent and quite helpful, and his PR assistant was pleasant. Anderson agreed with us on the complexity of the issue, and he outlined DEQ’s goals to decrease the rate of expired permits in Oregon.
Since the publication of our story, “DEQ has Oregon in Dirty Hot Water” in Eugene Weekly, Northwest Environmental Advocates and Northwest Environmental Defense Center have filed a lawsuit against DEQ and its director, Richard Whitman, over the substantial backlog of expired permits.
I’ve always adored the art of storytelling, but investigative pieces like this go a step farther to make changes in our community. To me, this class and our project was about so much more than DEQ. We learned the ins and outs of Oregon public records law, how to fine-tune informational accuracy and the importance of turning every single page. My favorite lectures, however, were the ones led by my classmates. We shared stories and discussed how to open a window when a door is slammed in our face. Walth taught us that we aren’t just students anymore. We’re journalists.
Katherine Smith is a senior double-majoring in public relations and journalism with a minor in business administration. She is an associate editor for Ethos Magazine, a student-run publication on campus, and is preparing to travel post-graduation. She hopes to apply her passions for strategic communication and written storytelling within the music industry.
Aaron Nelson is a senior studying journalism at the SOJC with a focus in photo and multimedia journalism. He currently works as a photographer for the Daily Emerald and has freelanced for KVAL. He has also held previous internships with Scout Recruiting and the music-review website Daily-Beat.