Meditations on our Future
by: Robert McClure, Investigate West Posted on: November 13, 2012
Photo: Simon Davis-Cohen
By Robert McClure, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Investigate West
Editor’s Note: This is a questionnaire with Robert McClure, one of the Northwest’s most experienced and active investigative journalists.
As we head into the future, what industries, decisions or trends in the West do you believe will need the most public oversight?
Energy and climate change are going to pose some new and unusual challenges for our democracy. The current controversy of the mile-long trains that are set to move Powder River Basin coal to the West Coast for export to Asia are only the most obvious areas. As we seek to adopt a lighter carbon footprint we are going to face all kinds of tradeoffs: wind power kills birds and is in some cases damn unsightly; solar’s great but do we really want to cover vast swaths of the desert with machinery and industry (and why isn’t distributed solar getting a *lot* more effort)? I am also coming to believe that, given our failure to treat the climate/energy crisis with a World War II-like mentality, we have probably already doomed ourselves to being forced to try bioengineering; this will pose many ethical, political and practical dilemmas.
What issue or public discussion is in most need of investigative journalistic oversight in the West today?
Wow, that’s a hard one. There is so much. I’m going to go with InvestigateWest’s strong suit and answer environment/public health/government accountability. With the decline of newspapers, the traditional core of the newsgathering ecosystem and the medium historically most likely to produce in-depth journalism, we’ve seen reporters in the environment/public health area increasingly thought of as a luxury. And yet actual conditions in some cases are deteriorating. For example, our partnership with EarthFix on water pollution has uncovered huge failures in the Clean Water Act, which stand to get worse as our infrastructure ages. Fortunately, we may be seeing movement to fill this crucial niche of environmental/public health journalism. EarthFix, the public broadcasting network of environmental reporters across the Northwest and based at Oregon Public Broadcasting, is an example. InvestigateWest is another.
What has been a consistent challenge you have faced throughout your career, as a journalist concerned with human and environmental health?
Attention span. Of the audience, not me. Some of the most important topics in the human and environmental health field are really incredibly complex, and yet also very important. Example: our stories that resulted in Washington being the first state to ban a class of toxic asphalt sealants drew upon a vast, lengthy and quite intricate body of scientific research. There is no way in a reasonable-sized text story or broadcast to go into even a large fraction of that. So the challenge is to distill and telescope down this important information without oversimplifying. I go by Albert Einstein’s maxim: “Make everything as simple as possible – but not simpler.”
Is the freedom of information meaningless without the freedom to implement the solutions that the information suggests? How have you had success in creating change with the information you produce?
In my view, freedom of information is inherently empowering. It’s why I, like so many fellow journalists, went into this profession: We want to change the world to make it better. Journalism at its best is a change agent. (Although there are plenty of other ways that freedom of information makes change. Witness Arab Spring and the way those events were catalyzed by new information-sharing technology.) Yes, I have personally had quite a lot of success at making change. I was one of only a few journalists who consistently spent most of his or her time writing about the need for change in the Florida Everglades between the late ‘80s and the time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched what has become today one of the largest ecosystem-restoration projects on the face of the globe. With colleagues at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I consistently covered the declining health of Puget Sound, inspiring major changes in governance of efforts to rescue the Sound. (Much more reporting still needs to be done on both the Everglades and Puget Sound to keep those efforts moving ahead; the task is certainly not done, but I count what happened in reaction to our reporting to be progress.) With my colleagues at InvestigateWest, I’ve been more successful than any journalist has a right to be at effecting change over the last three years. Our list includes: three public-safety laws passed by the Washington Legislature, two of which were firsts for any state in the country; changes in the way sexual-assault victims are treated at Reed College in Oregon; and a $100,000 grant for community groups studying health disparities among people who live around the Duwamish River Superfund site in southern Seattle. Freedom of information definitely can and should lead to meaningful change.
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