Environmental Health News in June launched an investigative series “Pollution, Poverty and People of Color,” a multi-part report on the issue of environmental justice. Commemorating the 30th anniversary of the birth of the environmental justice movement, reporters went to seven American communities, where EHN Editor-in-Chief Marla Cone said they found “a legacy of lingering problems and newly emerging threats that are jeopardizing people of color in low-income communities.” Janelle Haskell spoke with Cone about the series.
What prompted the series? How did it come about?
Our goal is to write about issues that don’t get much coverage. In most cases when it comes to environmental health, that means people of color and people in low income communities because they are the most vulnerable when it comes to contaminated air and water and food.
And so I just thought what better could we do than take a look at environmental justice issues 30 years after the North Carolina protests started the movement? I was really shocked how we hadn’t come very far.
What else surprised you about what you learned in reporting this series?
I think what surprised me the most was that I knew the environmental justice problems were widespread, but the extent of it surprised me – even after 30 years of writing about environmental problems. There are thousands of communities in the country that surrounded by multiple threats to their environment. They have little clout, they’re ignored by the media, no one’s paying any attention to them, on one’s investigating their problems - even in areas where they have really severe problems.
One quote in particular stood out to me … when one source said that these communities think that this is normal … that it’s normal to have water too polluted to drink and that they have to spend their hard earned cash on drinking water; that it’s normal to have a home in Richmond surrounded by 5 refineries and three chemical plants and ports and freeways and everything else. Or that it’s normal in the case of that one woman who said when she was in school there would be hazard alerts about toxic gasses and so the teachers would put them in buses and drive them around until it was finally over.
And the most vulnerable people of all are the children – whether they are fetuses or babies or toddlers – they’re the most vulnerable to the effects of these contaminants.
What instructions did you give your reporters working on this series?
Their instructions were to give their stories a strong sense of place and a compelling voice of the people – but also to be well grounded in the science. I wanted each story to come back with a theme.
How much time did it take to report and produce the series?
We did this incredibly fast. We first started on it in February. I know from experience in a mainstream newsroom to do a project of this significance it would have taken a year – a year of full time reporters and editors and graphics people and photographers. The staff that I had is a group of incredibly dedicated journalists. Particularly when it came to the Richmond story, they spent a lot of their own time out in the communities thinking about what they wanted to write and whom they wanted to interview.
What were the major difficulties encountered in reporting these stories?
For me, one of the hardest things was to pin down what communities to go to because it’s just shocking how many communities there are. We could have chosen between thousands of them. And our goal is to continue from here and to write about these issues when we find them. We’re working on a couple pieces to add to the series so we’ll occasionally put out more stories…
What tips would you offer journalists who want to cover the environment?
Don’t be afraid of the science. The science should be the backbone of virtually every story you write about the environment. If there’s a claim being made – check it out. There are often scientists and researchers available – you do not have to rely on activists. Learn how to read those scientific journal articles.
Also, look for communities like this (with environmental issues) around you – they are there … and tell their stories.
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