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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Change and discussion

With a great deal of excitement and no small amount of fear, I’ve left The Journal to pursue a PhD in communications at Concordia University. And so this blog will likely turn more to questions of representation, analysis of journalism, interesting articles I come across and — forgive me now — how my own research rolls out.

But first, I wanted to share and take a closer look at my last major project for The Journal — an investigation of Alberta’s pipeline system that was published early last month after weeks of interviews, data mining, and, frankly, finding dead ends. It was actually a pretty challenging piece to write, and if you can track down the original story (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), you’ll note it was helped along with files from reporter Gemma Karstens-Smith, business reporter Lewis Kelly and provincial affairs reporter Karen Kleiss. You won’t find the names of my editors, all of whom offered amazing advice and recommendations. Nor will you find the names of countless fellow Journal reporters — when you work in a newsroom, you are consistently guided and inspired by your coworkers and their very good questions.

Due to copyright issues, I clearly cannot republish entire articles. What I can do, however, is pull some of the graphs to discuss how I got this piece off the ground, as something of a teaching tool for the future. As such, today and over the next few days, I will be discussing the lede (or introduction), the nut graph (or thesis statement), the reportage (how I found facts and figures), the interviews, the kicker (or conclusion) and, finally, the accompanying sidebar.

When published, this piece was about 4,000 words, run alongside a sidebar, stories from my colleagues and an A1 introduction. Most newspaper articles simply don’t benefit from so much space, even as we get into a digital age of online publication and the freedom to post more onto our websites. Nonetheless, I think there are things to learn from this piece, in terms of how to find information and what to do with it all once you’ve amassed your ridiculously huge file of paperwork, your audio files from interviews, and more maps than you know how to deal with. As well, I think there are criticisms to be made of this work, and look forward to any comments or questions you may have.

The lede

At the end of the day, I spent weeks speaking to government, industry and regulatory board representatives, scientists trying to come up with solutions, and I read countless reports while doing a lot of math.

I did not, however, have a really strong first-person story of a spill, which would offer a more typical beginning to a newspaper story. Reporters usually ease into a big story by connecting readers to someone directly affected by the issue at hand.

This personal story has to be relevant, however — you can’t lead with something you think is interesting that isn’t after all related to the topic at hand. The lede should set the tone for the rest of the story, walking readers directly to the “nut graph.”

Without such a story, I chose — with some difficulty and after taking a few walks to clear my head — to try to hit readers with the very real numbers. How to do it, though? Sometimes we come across numbers too big — for example, a government counting on a deficit budget in the billions of dollars — to picture. Government budget numbers are so much bigger than what we have in our own bank accounts they become unimaginable, and carry little to no weight.

Here is what went to print:

In just 30 days this spring, Alberta pipelines spilled nearly 10,000 barrels of oil, leaking crude and effluent onto privately owned land in northern Alberta and into the waters of a southern Alberta reservoir.
That spillage amounts to 1.5 million litres in three leaks between May 19 and June 18, or the equivalent of 44 large tanker trucks being emptied into the environment.

This lede was the result of time spent Google-converting thousands of oil barrels to Olympic swimming pools and other imaginable volumes. My deskmate Elise Stolte recommended the tanker truck comparison, and I think we can all picture the trucks in our minds, rolling along — or toppled beside — a major highway.

The “nut graph” — or graphs

In print journalism, the “nut graph” clearly sets out what an article is about — it is something like a thesis statement in an academic essay. Its intent is to explain, in one paragraph, why an article matters. In what context does this article live? Why must a reader invest his or her time?

In blog posts dealing with reportage over the next two days, I will discuss the importance of allowing yourself to be surprised by the data you find and the interviews you undertake. But by the time you are finished your research, the nut graph is an opportunity to write with authority.

In my story, the third paragraph was the nut graph:

Industry and government officials insist that overall, Alberta’s pipelines are safe, even as environmental groups call for a review of the system, and people outside the province question the wisdom of two massive pipeline projects proposed to carry bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands to British Columbia’s West Coast and Texas’s Gulf Coast.

I would argue all news stories need a nut graph in the first three to five graphs. A lengthy article demands secondary nut graphs to uphold the structure of the story. This is in part because there are “turns” — people literally have to turn the page, or they scroll down so far on the screen that they may need something of a flag post to remind them where they are in the story. This, again, is not unlike an academic essay, but written in much friendlier language.

Here are a pair of supporting nut graphs that could be found in my story:

Comparative data supporting the safety of Alberta’s pipeline system are hard to come by, however. How does Alberta’s system measure up against others? What is the big-picture environmental impact of spills beyond single incidents? These questions are difficult to answer. …

The problem with information that mystifies the frequency of spills comes when people outside Alberta try to evaluate projects like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway. The $5.5-billion line proposed to carry bitumen to tankers at Kitimat, B.C., has won over Alberta’s industry, as well as city and provincial government leaders, for its promise of $72 billion in revenues over nine years. But in British Columbia, First Nations and other communities worry about threats to the environment, particularly at water crossings throughout northern B.C.
Such groups were quick to jump on the Elk Point spill – the result of a flange gasket failure at the pumping station, and reportedly causing no public health risk – as proof the Northern Gateway plan ought to be binned. …

Next up:

In the days ahead, I’ll be reviewing how I reported this story — specifically, how I found information and how interviews were done — and I will return to writing elements such as the “kicker.”

I welcome any and all comments, from questions to recommendations on how you would have done it differently!

Finding new ideas

Earlier this summer, with the arrival of the Journal‘s team of intrepid intern reporters, I put my mind to explaining how to generate story ideas — the result, a lunch-hour presentation involving reporters and editors from throughout the newsroom, can be found here.

Even after my pre-brainstorming session brainstorming, however (how’s that for temporal confusion?), I couldn’t help thinking the art of coming up with story ideas is a learned one, heavily reliant on familiarity with your city or beat, and conversations with coworkers, family, friends and people you encounter while doing other stories, at parties, and generally out and about. There isn’t really an equation to it, there are no guarantees, and there are days it can feel like throwing spaghetti noodles at a wall and hoping something sticks. During my first summer in Edmonton, in 2005, I spent many a night poring over the websites and local newspapers of very small northern Alberta communities, then making endless phone calls. The effort resulted in familiarity with the geography of northern Alberta, at least one trip outside the city (Slave Lake!), and general skills that would prove handy when later assigned to the crime bureau.

So this presentation, to our crew of talented new reporters, offers just some starting points.

As newsrooms shrink, sometimes journalists worry over what we ought to say to incoming or graduating journalism students. I can’t help thinking there is more room today than ever before for student journalists and freelancers to pitch story ideas that end up under the radar on a busy news day. Whether freelance budgets are flexible enough to buy the pitches is another matter, of course. But I happen to have bottomless faith that, when a story meets a certain criteria of absolutely necessary to the public good (while still objective and non-partisan in its outlook) and fascinating to read, it will always find a market.

Into 2012…

It’s been a busy couple months since I last posted — I headed back to London briefly for my graduation (amazing!) and spent most of January and much of December occupied with coverage of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

On the personal front, after some editing, my dissertation was published as part of the LSE Media and Communication department’s Electronic MSc Dissertation Series. Entitled, “Observers, Witnesses, Victims or Activists? How Inuit Voices are Represented in Mainstream Canadian Press Coverage of Global Warming,” it is the product of much contemplation and research over the course of my year away. Here is the abstract:

“Global warming in the Arctic has prompted international debate over contested maritime borders and the potential promise and pitfalls of new natural resource extraction. However, heightened political rhetoric related to Canada’s North and Arctic sovereignty has not been accompanied by new attention to the political claims and narratives of people indigenous to
the region. Inuit cultures are endangered when receding ice and melting permafrost compromise hunting practices and threaten the sustainability of isolated northern communities. By surveying 135 articles published over a five-year period in three agenda setting Canadian newspapers – the Globe and Mail, Edmonton Journal and Toronto Star this research shows Inuit voices are absent from nearly half of all articles dealing directly
with climate change, the Arctic and indigenous community issues.

“As a case study of the extent to which traditionally marginalized groups are represented in mainstream news coverage of ongoing political issues, this research is grounded in postcolonial theory and Nick Couldry’s (2010) concept of ‘effective voice.’ Content and critical discourse analysis are employed to interrogate how Inuit voices are represented, treating the
act of voicing claims as a political one. Among this paper’s key findings is the extent to which Inuit voices are marginalized when accounts of experience or observation are treated as the only narratives for Inuit community members to share, effectively framing them as witnesses to or victims of climate change rather than political actors.”

I also had an opportunity earlier this month to build on my Freedom of Information seminar, when I was a guest presenter for a second-year journalism class at MacEwan University in Edmonton. The presentation is here, and it expands on ideas from an earlier seminar I delivered to colleagues at the office. For this audience, I expanded a little on some basic do’s and don’ts (like please, please, please don’t lead a story by saying you got a document! boring!), and talked about non-journalists who could benefit from FOIP and ATIP know-how, like community or NGO advocates, post-graduate students, or business professionals….

Meanwhile, the Journal‘s dedicated page for all things related to the Northern Gateway pipeline can be found here. As an environment reporter, my part in our coverage includes landowners’ questions, Albertans’ stake in this, provincial politics, federal politics and aboriginal issues.

freedom of information

This week I had the privilege of leading a workshop on making access to information (or freedom of information) requests for my colleagues at The Journal.

You’ll find my slides here — pretty straightforward overview stuff designed to briefly consider why and when reporters might use FOIP. Feel free to send me tips for better approaches or things that should be considered. And, if you’re super keen on access to information and you haven’t come across it already, I’d definitely recommend The Paper Trail blog, currently on hiatus but due to return to the Vancouver Sun in September 2012.

The best part of my presentation, however, was the part I can’t share — all the amazing story ideas reporters came up with in break-out groups. It’s hard not to be pumped about journalists taking an hour out of their day to think about great journalism and fill a white-board with a range of ideas relevant to all sections of the newspaper.

Alberta’s first female premier: Covering the swearing-in ceremony via social media

On Oct. 7, Alison Redford was sworn in as Alberta’s first female premier, and I was assigned to “live Tweet” the event for The Edmonton Journal.

On one hand, this isn’t a totally new way of covering an event for me; as part of Postmedia’s team, we  used Twitter to cover the Royal Wedding in London this spring. As well, when I was assigned to the provincial affairs beat at The Journal, I was one of the first reporters to use Twitter to find stories, talk to sources and cover events happening inside the Legislature chamber such as debate over Bill 44, a controversial piece of human rights legislation.

Nonetheless, it speaks to a new, digital-first mode of news coverage. The Tweets are an engaging way of covering a live event for print reporters — my Twitter timeline is below — and ultimately contribute to this story.

(#ableg is the hashtag for Alberta’s provincial legislature; #Redford is the hashtag for the new premier; #yeg is the hashtag for Edmonton.)

9 a.m. Alta’s 1st female premier to be sworn in today at #ableg I’ll be live-tweeting, follow edmontonjournal.com #Redford http://www.edmontonjournal.com/technology/Watch+Alison+Redford+sworn+Alberta+premier+today/5514184/story.html

This column from @Graham_Journal sets up today’s swearing-in #ableg #redford http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Gaffes+come+with+territory/5510000/story.html

10 a.m. Setting up the #ableg rotunda for #Redford‘s swearing-in http://yfrog.com/nyrowrnj

About 100 seats on main floor for invited guests, standing room 2nd level for public #ableg #Redford

11 a.m. On other floors of #ableg, closed-circuit TVs so staff can watch #Redford‘s swearing-in ceremony

Spouses, [including] Glen Jermyn, #Redford‘s husband, and Marie Stelmach, to arrive at 1050 am #ableg

Another picture from inside #ableg in preparation for #Redford‘s swearing-in, which starts 11 am

Stelmach hands in his resignation letter at 11:10 am, according to ceremony plan given to media #ableg #Redford

At 11:15 am, #Redford takes Oath of Office, the whole event to wrap by 11:30 #ableg

#Redford just walked along 2nd level of #ableg to clapping of those gathered

12-yr-old Sneh Yadav, from Calgary, says “it’ll be cool to see a girl leader now” #Redford #ableg

Sneh drove up with dad Dave last night, she’s friends with #Redford‘s daughter Sarah, they had [breakfast] together this morning #ableg

#Redford family friend Marina Mason flew in from Calgary this a.m., says “she’s always been a leader in everything she’s done” #ableg
Bill and Marion Leithead drove 2 hrs from Bawlf this am to see #Redford sworn in; they volunteered for 4 months to see this day #ableg
“We’re [very] happy,” says Bill Leithead, Marion adds, “it’s what she deserves” #ableg #Redford
Inside #ableg, most [people] wearing suits, dresses; it’s a little different from Stelmach’s 2006 swearing-in http://bit.ly/rlU2vk #Redford
Nazek Cayai, 64, of #yeg, said she was excited to come to #ableg today for #Redford‘s swearing-in, to see a female prem
A hush has fallen over #ableg #Redford
Spouses are seated #ableg #Redford
Children up in the balcony, MLAs seated, pipers on the stairs #ableg #Redford
Before Ed Stelmach’s 2006 swearing-in on the #ableg steps, ceremonies were indoors. #Redford
Lougheed, Getty and Klein were sworn in at [Government] House, in 1971, 1985 and 1992 respectively. #ableg #Redford
All standing, piping, cheering and “woo”ing. A taller person [could] tell you if #Redford had arrived in rotunda 🙂 #ableg
Rev. David Choka talks about setting future for province, being a leader of leaders #Redford #ableg
The [reverend] talks about #Redford being granted wisdom, decisiveness, perseverence #ableg
Stelmach tenders resignation, [Lieut-Gov.] Ethell accepts #ableg #Redford
Applause at Stelmach’s recommendation #Redford take over #ableg
#Redford‘s middle name is Marilla Merrilla? And she’s taken the Oath of Office #ableg
Kids on the 2nd level are leaning over railings to get pics taken – mostly young girls #ableg #Redford
#Redford thanks guests, particularly children #ableg – says when this started she [couldn’t] imagine standing as 14th [premier]
Of this journey, she says, “it began as many of life’s journeys do with my mother” #Redford #ableg
#Redford says her own daughter Sarah has been both wise and supportive beyond her years, thanks her husband Glen for his support #ableg
#Redford thanks her [family] for showing her the world, “and best of all they brought me to Alberta” #ableg
#Redford also thanks Stelmach, who gets standing applause, [she] says he has led by example, supported her as rookie MLA #ableg
Her win [isn’t] a sea change, #Redford says, but Alta politics catching up with Alberta – and soon after ends her speech, to applause #ableg
A little error in order – LtGov Ethell was supposed to go first, jokes he’d be fired now if he answered to #Redford instead of queen #ableg
Ethell thanks Ed and Marie Stelmach, wishes them happy retirement #ableg #Redford
Ethell takes on Churchill quote, talks about #Redford‘s courage, strength of character, her fight against apartheid, other foreign service
#Redford‘s personal loss, her mother’s death, very much on people’s minds, Ethell says it showed what she’s made of in last wks #ableg
Verlyn Olson presents #Redford with bible on behalf of executive council #ableg
Vice regal party now leaving… Again a taller person could tell you more… But there’s piping #ableg #Redford
And that’s all – refreshments in the lej, #Redford out #ableg
Leaving the #ableg rotunda, #Redford hugged her daughter Sarah quite close – it’s a lot of bodies jammed in here, a lot for a 12 nine-yr-old?
A friend of #Redford‘s, Natalie McFadden, says new prem unlikely to have been nervous today, “She’s just got it together” #ableg
5 p.m. Fun #Redford facts: At 46, she’s the 4th-youngest premier of Alta. In 1943 Manning was 34; 1925 Brownlee was 42; 1971 Lougheed was 43 #ableg
#Redford is also Alta’s 5th prem-turned-lawyer: Before her, Rutherford 1905, Sifton 1910, Brownlee 1925 and Lougheed 1971 #ableg