Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Oregonian reporter details for SEJ how he wrote award-winning expose on oil train safety

Rob Davis
Rob Davis of The Oregonian won first place this year in the small market division of the Society of Environmental Journalists' 14th Annual Awards for Outstanding In-depth Reporting for his series, "Oil Trains in Oregon," which detailed safety flaws of trains carrying crude oil through the Pacific Northwest. Davis was interviewed about the series by SEJ for its Winter 2015/16 issue that came out this week. He explains how he got the idea for the story and the process it took to get the idea on the page.

"When a train hauling crude oil through Quebec exploded and killed 47 people in July 2013, backers of a proposed oil train terminal near Portland characterized it as isolated incident," Davis told SEJ. "Couldn't happen here, they said. Then another train exploded, then a third. That got my attention. Initial reader response was overwhelming—thousands live along rail lines here. I used their curiosity to help my guide my run-and-gun investigation."

When asked what was the hardest part of the story, Davis said: "It was challenging just to find out where oil was moving by rail and in what volume. Railroads and state safety regulators knew but refused to say. I successfully petitioned Oregon's attorney general to force the reports' disclosure. Regulators said they would stop collecting data because I made it public. They reversed themselves as soon as we printed that news."

Davis said one of the keys to successful investigative reporting is reliable sources, states SEJ. Davis said, "I connected with a former state rail safety inspector who was exceedingly generous with his time and counsel. He helped me figure out what to ask for—and let me know I was being lied to when bureaucrats told me it didn't exist."

Davis offers advice to other investigative journalists, saying "One, get beyond 'he said, she said.' If an environmental advocate claims something bad is happening, do the research and get the documents to authoritatively prove it yourself. Two, dive deeper on stories where you're going to be able to prove harm is occurring and there's someone who can be held accountable. Three, when you find harm, humanize it." The current issue of SEJ is by subscription only. The past issue can be read by clicking here.

Links to the train series:
Volatile issue, volatile cargo
ODOT to keep public in dark
ODOT will get oil train info
Oregon has no plans for river spills by oil trains
Railroads skirt the truth

No comments: