Discussion: Interviews

In my last two posts, I discussed how my last major project for The Journal “How safe are our pipelines?; Government, industry keep records of spills, but measuring risk is difficult,” in The Edmonton Journal, 7 July 2012, C1 — came together. First, I examined the writing of the lede and nut graph, then I offered a snapshot of how to get hard facts together, with a heavy emphasis on interviews and record-keeping.

Today, I am breaking out direct quotes from the story in order to discuss how I found interview subjects.

Before doing so, however, I would like to offer two basic guidelines for carrying out journalistic interviews:

1. Know what you need to ask, and know the answers you expect to receive.
2. Allow yourself to be surprised by the interview, and follow the conversation.

Perhaps these guidelines seem contradictory — how can you know what you want to hear while allowing yourself to be surprised?

The first guideline speaks to planning your interview. Before you pick up the phone — whether to carry out a telephone interview, or to set up an in-person meeting — you should know who you want to speak to and why. What will this person tell you that your story needs? What holes in the narrative can this person fill? What would the reader want to know if they had the opportunity to interview the same person?

One of my former colleagues — a hard-nosed investigative reporter — drew up a detailed list of questions before every interview. This script might even include an introduction, so the reporter could later be absolutely certain he had made clear to the interviewee who he worked for, what story he was writing, and where the information he learned would land. Particularly in investigative journalism, there is no room for generalities — it is unfair to your source, your readers and possibly to yourself to leave someone with the wrong idea as to what you meant to ask.

I tend — with a few exceptions — not to write out a script. Instead, I draw up a list of key topics that have to be covered, and I try to tick them off as I and the interview subject go through them. I leave room to add more topics as the interview goes on — items that pop into my head, or items they bring up that I want to keep track of. I always keep notes, whether or not I am recording an interview. If I am recording, I keep track of the time stamps on my recorder alongside my notes so I can return to a quote later for clarification. If I am not recording, I may repeat a direct quote back to the interview source either to ensure I got it right, or to let them expand on what they were saying.

The second guideline — to allow yourself to be surprised — encourages active listening and, arguably, allows the reporter to be fair to the interview subject. The only agenda a reporter should have going into an interview is getting the story right — not proving one party is right over another party, not nailing someone for once and for all.

Listening carefully to a source means querying their reasoning, allowing yourself to learn something new, and following a conversation you didn’t necessarily expect to have. It does not mean being taken off-course entirely — the reporter should remain in charge of the interview — but it allows room to learn that what you thought was a story may not be the story you expected.

The interviews

After tracking down hard facts for the pipeline story, the facts and figures needed to be brought to life for the reader.

Beat reporters are consistently in danger of speaking to the same people, over and over again. The goal here was to speak to a variety of people from all sides of the debate.

Although energy and environment ministers Ken Hughes and Diana McQueen (respectively) appear first in the story, they were among my final interviews.

Here are examples of what they said:

“We have a very safe system in Alberta, one of the most tightly regulated systems in the country for pipelines,” Energy Minister Ken Hughes says. But, he adds, “It’s actually quite difficult to get some of the information, and so one of the things that we’re going to be doing is actually seeing if we can’t make this more easily available to people.” …
McQueen says they are open to finding a process for “making sure that the information is transparent and easily accessible for people,” making recommendations with respect to water safety, and evaluating penalties to companies.

In this case I did prepare for the interview by drawing up a short list of questions — I wanted to ensure I hit on all the topics that would ultimately be written about in the final story.

As well, this organization helped me be absolutely clear as to what was asked and what was answered:

Asked about big-picture data that would explain the environmental effects of spills, McQueen said there are processes in place to handle each break, its cleanup and the protection of nearby residents.

Next, I quoted another traditional source — an environmental activist who had, days before, sent the newspaper a press release about “a group of landowners, environmental groups and others” who wanted a review of the pipeline system. This was the result of our telephone conversation:

“What we really need is a full review of how the system’s doing,” says Chelsea Flook, director of the Prairie chapter of the environmental group Sierra Club. …
“It’s difficult when the ERCB doesn’t want to release data on the pipelines itself,” Flook says. “Why don’t they want to tell us what’s going on?”

My telephone interview with Spruce Grove Mayor Stuart Houston was the result of asking the Capital Region Board for a map of pipelines in the area:

In the Edmonton region – a hub for oil lines coming into and out of refineries – pipeline committee chairman Stuart Houston, the mayor of Spruce Grove, says pipelines are safer than tankers or trains.
“I think there’s a science to it,” he says, when asked whether the region has statistics on safety or spills specific to the capital region. “I believe it has been demonstrated to be the safest, for the volume of oil that’s moved in the world.” …
“There have been a couple of pipeline ruptures. I mean, that is going to happen with pipelines,” Houston says. “We never like to hear it, but we still believe it’s the safest way to transport. We hear about ruptures and stuff, but the biggest factor is mitigating the impact of that spill and then having the persons responsible clean up.”

My phone interview with Sean Kheraj, an environmental historian at York University in Toronto, was the result of coming across his blog. He had written about questions he had about the reported rate of failure along the pipelines, and that blog post was first noticed by a columnist at the Vancouver Sun. My editor pointed out the column, I read the post, and I connected with Sean:

“The communities in British Columbia that are coming forward and talking about whether or not they want to have pipelines like the Northern Gateway project run through their communities are engaged in an exercise of risk assessment,” …
“One of the problems is the information is conveyed in such a way that I think it obscures the ability for a community to accurately evaluate what the risk is.” 

Finding a landowner to speak to about pipelines should be a simple process in Alberta. Throw a stone anywhere near Fort Saskatchewan, for example, and it’s landed near a pipeline.

My colleague Gemma Karstens-Smith helped me out on this front — we set out county maps from the area, and she cross-referenced the names of landowners to an online phone book, then began cold-calling people. But not all landowners want to talk about pipeline issues — some simply don’t have any, and others are still negotiating with companies.
In hindsight, an alternative way for us to have found people may well have been to mine the fully public database of lawsuits currently underway in Alberta between landowners and pipeline companies.

Using maps and a phone book instead, Gemma found a great story in Sherri Prodaniuk:

Away from government and industry reports, on land northeast of Edmonton, pipeline encroachment has prevented Sherri Prodaniuk from building anew on her family’s grain farm.
How deeply a pipeline is buried, the width of a company’s right-of-way, and whether the company approves a potential project can all determine whether a landowner can make changes to affected land. …
Like most landowners in Alberta, according to a 2011 Ipsos-Reid poll commissioned by the National Energy Board, Prodaniuk is fairly confident in the safety of her backyard pipeline. What bothers her is the lack of “democratic process,” or her inability to ultimately refuse the line.
“You would hope that the proper measures were put into place for lines not to leak on your property,” Prodaniuk says, suggesting landowners ought to receive more money, perhaps an annual payment, because they live with the possibility of the infrastructure failing.
“There are some lines that break and, yes, they do contaminate the soil. … It happens. I wish it wouldn’t happen.”

Because this story was about spills, not just regulation, we revisited “one of the province’s largest oil spills in decades, a 2011 leak of 28,000 barrels (4.5 million litres) from the Plains Midstream-owned Rainbow Lake pipeline near Peace River.” This resulted in an interview with Plains Midstream’s Stephen Bart as opposed to the site visit we hoped for:

“We’ve contoured all the lands, reseeded, so we’re just keeping an eye on it,” Bart says, adding most of the work was done by December. Of water samples, he says, “It was perfectly clean when we left in December and we just want to keep an eye and make sure nothing was missed. So it’s really just monitoring and letting nature take its course from that point on.”
Although Plains Midstream makes no failure statistics available, Bart says, “Pipeline operations (have) by far the best safety record from a transportation perspective. Plains, relative to the industry, compares very favourably there as well.”

We also tried to focus on the solution side of the equation — what is being done to stop leaks from happening? Business reporter Lewis Kelly met with an Edmonton businessman focused on exactly this question:

“As things get worse and you get more failures, then people will say, ‘Hmm, maybe we should do more,’ ” says Adrian Banica, chief executive of Synodon, an Edmonton company that has harnessed science used in the space sector to monitor pipelines for spills.
In practice, for customers like Encana, ConocoPhillips, Atco or Nova Chemicals, Synodon has mounted sensors to aircraft that hover 300 metres off the ground to capture snapshots of how pipelines are faring.

I called the University of Alberta, looking for researchers who are working on this, as well (I also hoped for a photograph of a corroding pipe, which was not possible in a nanotechnology lab):

Government penalties aside, a leak is revenue lost, says Walied Moussa, a University of Alberta engineering professor. Money alone would make early detection of leaks or strains on the system imperative. …
Moussa and a team of scientists have produced a sensory chip smaller than a pinky fingertip – seven millimetres by seven millimetres – that can be built into a membrane that would encase new pipelines. Hundreds or thousands of sensors could be set into the membrane, to speak to a wireless communication device that would alert pipeline engineers of any strains or abnormalities in the system.
The technology could detect a leak the moment it happened, anywhere in the pipe. Sometimes the source of the leak is “like a pinhole” and can take a long time to discover.
“By the time you discover that, there is huge contamination that took place,” Moussa says. “If we can monitor where that leak took place immediately, then we can save significant amount of not just resources, but actually we can reduce contamination and clean up much easier.”

Next up:

In my next blog post, I will discuss finishing-touch writing elements including the “kicker.” I welcome any and all comments, from questions to recommendations on how you would have done it differently. Cheers!

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