|Screenshot from a video report accompanying the award-winning “Spruced Up” project. Image: Noteworthy. Click the image to watch the full video.|
Inside Story: How Ireland’s Tree Farms, Licensed With Little Environmental Assessment, Harm Biodiversity, Rural Communities
“Spruced Up,” a report into how commercial forestry projects are damaging biodiversity in Ireland, started as a crowdsourced story idea and ended up winning Dublin-based reporter Niall Sargent a prize for outstanding investigative reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 20th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges called his crowdfunded project, which includes text, data graphics and video, a “fresh topic, written with clarity and backed with impressive original research [and] an outstanding job of explaining the significance of an undercovered area of biodiversity. Readers could recognize this is both a local issue and universal concern.” SEJournal Online recently caught up with Sargent via email about his unique efforts. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Niall Sargent: The idea for this investigation was sent in to us from a member of the public in line with our work ethos as a crowdsourced and crowdfunded platform. Noteworthy launched in April 2019 as an online crowdfunded investigative platform that invites submissions from the Irish public for investigations and issues that have not received media attention. The public can submit story ideas via our website, social media or email, which are then assessed by the team. If suitable, a public proposal is launched to crowdfund the investigation. We wanted to create a new platform for supporting important journalism, one where reporters and members of the public can team up to deliver the stories that matter.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Sargent: A major challenge was the lack of any forestry license database in Ireland, with the Forest Service releasing sporadic and sparse details in PDF format. We used our skills in scraping to pull down data and “access to information on the environment,” or AIE, requests to collect 10 years of license data. Another problem was that data was in various formats (Excel, PDF, Word) with numerous spelling errors. We used Tabula and OpenRefine to collate, correct, confirm and analyze the large datasets.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?
Sargent: The most surprising element of the investigation was the finding that there was a near complete lack of detailed environmental assessments carried out by the state for commercial forestry projects in Ireland, despite the known potential environmental and social impacts from planting single species nonnative spruce plantations, as well as the impacts when they are clear-felled. In the vast majority of cases, the need for full environmental assessment was ruled out at the earliest stage possible, even for larger forestry sites just barely falling below the threshold for which a full, detailed environmental assessment is required.
Another surprising finding, based on internal state records released, was the lack of action to hire more dedicated staff (ecologists and forestry inspectors) to handle a growing caseload of applications for forestry licenses despite environmental NGOs and the forestry industry itself warning for several years that there would be serious problems with the licensing system without changes to how the State was processing the applications.
Rather than just talking “at” the audience, we wanted
them to be able to examine the data themselves and
give us feedback on any issues they themselves may
have identified with forestry near their communities.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Sargent: We wanted to tell these data-heavy and data analysis-driven stories in a way that was accessible and engaging for a general audience, and decided that a focus on individuals involved in specific cases was important to bring to the fore. We also wanted to give our data analysis the attention it deserved too, and created online databases where individuals could search for forestry cases close to where they lived and examine in detail the level of environmental assessment that was carried out. This interactive element was important. Rather than just talking “at” the audience, we wanted them to be able to examine the data themselves and give us feedback on any issues they themselves may have identified with forestry near their communities.
SEJournal: Does the issue covered in your story have a disproportionate impact on people of low income, or people with a particular ethnic or racial background? What efforts, if any, did you make to include perspectives of people who may feel that journalists have left them out of public conversation over the years?
Sargent: The issues covered in our investigation have a disproportionate impact on isolated rural communities where marginal farming is the main income, due to the poor quality of the land for more intensive farming. These communities feel that they have been targeted by both state policy and commercial interests to expand the Irish forestry sector, with little voice in the discussion as to how their already dispersed communities are being further affected by the commercial forestry sector. These same communities have been accused of appealing specific forestry license applications just because they do not want forestry close to their property; however, various appeals have won on environmental grounds. For this reason, we felt it was important to dedicate one article to some of the individuals and communities appealing license decisions to better understand their motivations and highlight the fact they were winning many of their cases, thus having good grounds to be taking action over concerns of the impacts on their communities.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the series and why?
Sargent: With more time and resources available, we would have tried to map out the forestry sites across Ireland where proper environmental assessments were not carried out, so concerned local citizens could easily locate forestry plots close to their communities.
Patience is a key attribute to have when telling such
time-consuming stories, especially when working
with data in order to avoid any errors in the analysis.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story or project?
Sargent: We have learned that it can take considerably more time than expected to produce a story based on large datasets, especially where that information is not already available publicly, requiring Freedom of Information on the Environment, or FOI, requests, or is not scrapeable from an online public source. So, we learned that patience is a key attribute to have when telling such time-consuming stories, especially when working with data in order to avoid any errors in the analysis.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Sargent: I would recommend reporters to be perseverant in seeking out new ways of accessing data and other records that may not be available through conventional journalistic techniques such as public record searches, and via contacts and sources. For example, crucial to the telling of this story was the use of AIE and FOI requests that helped to piece together more than 30,000 forestry licenses to reveal for the first time that the Forest Service was granting licenses for plantation forests in biodiversity-rich areas without proper environmental assessments. Information on forestry license applications were only partially available online in PDF documents scattered across various state agency websites at the time of our investigation, and FOI/AIE were the only means to access the required data.
SEJournal: Could you characterize the resources that went into producing your prize-winning reporting (estimated costs, i.e., legal, travel or other; or estimated hours spent by the team to produce)? Did you receive any grants or fellowships to support it?
Sargent: Several months went into this investigation, including more than 20 FOI requests, hours of data analysis of more than 30,000 forestry licenses, analysis of research paper findings and hours of analysis of hundreds of decisions of the Forestry Appeals Committee. We did not receive any additional funding for this project beyond what we received through the crowdfunding of the project.
Niall Sargent is a multimedia investigative reporter with Noteworthy, a community-led investigative journalism platform with The Journal, Ireland's leading online news source, where he is focused on issues related to climate change, biodiversity, ecosystem services and food production. He was previously the editor of The Green News — an online environmental news website — and was the first-ever recipient of the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund Traineeship in Investigative Journalism with the Irish Times, where he produced an investigation into unsustainable biomass imports by Bord na Mona. He also has research experience with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom and with RTE — Eco Eye and RTE Investigates. He holds an M.A. in investigative journalism from City University London and a diploma in online journalism from Goldsmiths University in London. Prior to his move into journalism, Niall worked as a criminal intelligence analyst with INTERPOL on projects related to drug smuggling, the trafficking in organs and the illicit online sale of pharmaceuticals.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 15. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.