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Centre for Investigative Journalism
by Abrey Myers
LLOYD TATARYN, AUTHOR OF Dying For A Living, noted two problems confronting journalists who cover environmental topics: a lack of original research by the reporters themselves and a tendency to wait for someone else to pull all the information together for them.
When researching material for his chapter on aluminum dusting of uranium miners in Ontario, Tataryn discovered that the practice had been banned in Britain, Sweden and South Africa. In Canada Tataryn found reporters who knew about the story, "but, because no one had conducted a report describing the potential harmful effects of this process, no one bothered to report it."
After his story was broadcast on The Fifth Estate, a federal investigation was launched. A report was handed down in mid-March which recommended banning the process because there is no evidence that it is beneficial.
Tataryn's second point—corroborate official data with your own independent study to see if it clicks—was demonstrated by his story of arsenic contamination in Yellovvknife. A government hair-sample study conducted on a volunteer basis was flawed for four reasons: the people who were sick could not come forward; surveys of this kind tended to attract kooks; it missed people from lower economic groups (in this case, Indian reservation children living within the shadow of the arsenic-emitting smokestacks); and there was no control group used.
Tataryn secured additional hair samples, which were given to scientists at the University of Toronto for blind analysis (they weren't told what the samples were for). The results led to another government investigation, which resulted in an 80 per cent reduction of arsenic levels from the plant involved and the establishment of an arsenic standard in Canada.
Gilles Provost, of Le Devoir, works with written documents because he doesn't have all that great a memory for faces and names. Provost agreed with other members on the panel: no one bothers to look into the scientific data. The universities are untapped sources of information, he said, a theme that was echoed in other workshops throughout the Conference. (Provost's story, "Ballast Metal: La rentabilité avant la santé," was reprinted in the CIJ's Review.)
Ross Howard of the Toronto Star said he never heard of acid rain until 1977, when a California college put out a list of the ten most covered-up stories of the year. It's another case of the material waiting for someone to pick it up and put it together. "It's a national story," said Howard, "and we're still at the stage where the feds deny everything but the death of a few lakes and the (Ontario) provincial government is denying anything but a few lakes and maybe a few trees, and perhaps a few crops."
We may be seven years behind the Swedes, but it's all there, in the scientific literature and in the student reports, too.
Howard discovered that there are scientists working within the government whose departments are constantly competing for money. "The scientists who worry about the quality of the air weren't getting as much money as the scientists who worry about the quality of the water." The tactic was to uncover the source of tension—the jealousy between government departments—and play them against each other to his own advantage.
Howard urged listeners not to ignore students who do research papers for their professors, taking up to seven or eight months to compile their data.
Howard devoted much of his talk to good and bad sources for future researchers. The best U.S. source for information and quotes on environmental issues is Senator Ed Muskie; the best American environmental interest group is the Environmental Defense Fund; the best in Canada were the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the relevant federal government clipping services ("better than CP"). Howard has found Environment Canada so-so as a source. It has material, but you have to know to whom to speak and what you're looking for. One of their branches, the Atmospheric Environmental Service, in Downsview, Ont., is good, but watch for jealousy patterns. Energy, Mines and Resources?—I have little use for them.
Published in Sources May/June 1980