Discussion: Tracking hard facts

I have rarely been interested in questions about what makes professional journalists different from bloggers. At heart, I find the debate definitively boring: Some professional journalists make excellent, entertaining bloggers; Some bloggers undertake original reportage that contributes a great deal to public discussion.

If I were to try to differentiate, then, I would start with original reportage and transparency. Media organizations have resources — both monetary and human — that support full-time jobs dedicated to finding new information and asking people questions, allowing for original reporting. Professional journalists also have experience in finding information and, again, a support system in place for long institutional memory. In terms of transparency, reporters do (or should) consistently self-identify as people who will be making public whatever they learn, they explain where their information came from, and they (should) reach to tell all sides of a story as best they can.

Bloggers can also do all this, though. A lone blogger might depend on crowd-sourcing to find a support system and long institutional memory. Practice makes for experience. And bloggers can offer a different kind of transparency — hopefully in doing any original reportage they self-identify as people who will make information public, but in addition they can publish at length about how they found information.

So, to discuss original reportage and in the name of transparency, in this blog post I’ve pulled out some of the hard numbers used in my last major project for The Journal, published as, “How safe are our pipelines?; Government, industry keep records of spills, but measuring risk is difficult,” in The Edmonton Journal, 7 July 2012, C1. Like yesterday’s post, this is an explanation of how a lengthy feature works — in this case, drawing on traditional and non-traditional sources to track facts and figures.

Delving into such a topic as Alberta’s pipeline system demanded extensive, organized record-keeping. My record-keeping is most often focused on not losing anything: I keep a single file folder filled with hand-written notes and printed-out reports; I back up word documents on my computer and e-mail copies to myself from a work account to a personal account; I save much of what I write and most electronic documents I come across on a USB stick as well as on my desktop.

Over the course of this project I discovered a great alternative record-keeping practice, though! My colleague Lewis Kelly writes his first drafts in a word document with footnotes. This is brilliant — ask him about any specific fact in his story, and he has clearly noted where it came from, when and where the interview took place, etc.

Ask me about a specific fact in my story and I will spend five minutes scrambling through notebooks and searching my e-mail archive.

Hard facts

From my story:

The Energy Resources Conservation Board reports a current rate of failure per thousand kilometres of pipeline as 1.5, down from 2.2 in 2006.
Altogether there are nearly 400,000 kilometres of pipelines, including those that move gas, oil, water or other products.

This data came directly from an ERCB spokesman over the course of a handful of e-mails. Generally, interviews are best done on the phone or in person, so you can talk through your questions, look for clarifications, and ensure both parties understand each other clearly.

In some cases, however, when you are looking for very technical information, it can be easier to write out a series of questions and e-mail them, after you have spoken to the right person to ensure the e-mail is going to the right place. I don’t often recommend it, but this did work very well in this case, and made for a clear paper trail I could follow later.

The board defines “failure” as anything that stops the pipeline’s flow, from a leak or rupture to a hit that damages the pipeline or its coating but doesn’t necessarily cause a spill.
Full pipeline ruptures – defined as “the instantaneous tearing or fracturing of the pipeline material, immediately impairing the operation of the pipeline” – are also on a relative downswing: The most recent numbers indicate there were just 18 ruptures in 2010 compared with 39 in 2008 and 23 in 2007.

This information all came from the ERCB’s annual reports; experts in the field will have read these reports for themselves, of course, but most readers will not. The reporter’s job in this case is to relay the information in a more clear fashion than would be available in technical reports people find online.

As well, all these facts and figures ultimately act as backbone not only to the published nut graph(s), but should explain the opinions and comments throughout the story from people who are both happy and unhappy with the pipeline system.

The province does not keep a single list or map of pipeline leaks. Annual reports from the ERCB outline the causes of failures but provide no breakdown of costs to clean up leaks or the impacts on water, land or wildlife. …
While Alberta Environment keeps track of serious environmental incidents on paper, there is no database or report that breaks pipeline ruptures out from other environmental disasters.
The province would have to go through mountains of paperwork to find out how many bodies of water are affected by pipeline spills in a year, or how many animals died after running into leaked oil.

We know all this because I asked many times, of both the energy and environment departments, of the ERCB, and of the ministers themselves. I went through annual reports, budgets for both departments, and the ERCB’s website, just in case there was information out there we could use to dig deeper.

Journalists are never really experts in their fields, even if they are beat reporters. Nonetheless, learning and using the specific terms for information you are asking about — and knowing where this information should be found, and in what format — helps the communications people you are speaking with relay your questions.

No other jurisdiction measures ruptures, spills or other line problems the same way, making a comparison between Alberta’s pipeline safety record and that of other jurisdictions in North America virtually impossible.

This fact came as a result of a lengthy telephone interview with an ERCB spokeswoman, but demanded some frame of reference:

For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation simply reports the overall number of pipeline spills per year, how much liquid has been spilled, the reported cause and cost of damages. Its data are broken down by state and can be downloaded for analysis.

This story was also an example of how good record-keeping for past projects can lay the groundwork for future projects:

Problems with the reporting of Alberta’s pipeline information are also reflected in a 2011 provincial report from Alberta Innovates. Ahead of U.S. hearings into TransCanada’s proposal to build the $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf Coast, the report’s authors wrote: “It is recommended that better statistics be provided as an improved presentation of the integrity of the Alberta pipeline system and to facilitate continuous monitoring of the performance of (diluted bitumen) pipelines.”

I first found this Alberta Innovates report in December, 2011, when I was writing about the Northern Gateway pipeline project for a series of stories. I spent days on the joint National Energy Board-Environmental Protection Agency panel’s website for Gateway hearing documents, and this report was among the submissions. I printed it out at the time and kept it in a file dedicated to the Gateway hearings. Later, when I began research for the pipeline project, I went through the Gateway hearings file for any reports, interview subjects, or other documents that I could revisit.

Still, to date, large-scale spills rarely seem to take place in people’s backyards or on the waterways they use. For example, a 5,000 barrel sweet crude spill into muskeg 20 kilometres southeast of Rainbow Lake in May got far less media attention than the recent Sundre-area spill of 3,000 barrels of oil. …
Gleniffer Lake, which was closed immediately after the June 8 spill for cleanup, was not reopened to the public until June 28. Shoreline cleanup along the Red Deer River continues.

This data came, primarily, from our own and the Calgary Herald’s newspaper archives.

At one point in the process of my reporting, I flirted with the idea of creating a spreadsheet of all spills as reported in the Journal and Herald, going back about a decade. This would have been seriously time-consuming, however, and we would have run into some trouble with how spills are reported — some are reported in litres, others in barrels, and some reports are corrected multiple times. As well, not all spills receive the same media attention as others, information about others is not known publicly until some time has passed, and media outlets do not always cover the details of clean-up.

Next up:

In the days ahead, I’ll be continuing to review this feature, looking specifically at how interviews were done, and discussing writing elements such as the “kicker” and the sidebar. I welcome any and all comments, from questions to recommendations on how you would have done it differently — thanks for reading!

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