Infrastructure — Covering the Hidden, Neglected Stories

November 15, 2016
Jacob Stachnik, a worker at Concrete Service in Traverse City, Mich., stands on a stack of septic tanks. Water pollution and diseases linked to septic system failures are becoming more problematic in the United States. Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue


Inside Story: Infrastructure — Covering the Hidden, Neglected Stories


Brett Walton writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States for Circle of Blue, a nonprofit team of journalists and researchers headquartered in Michigan that reports on the global intersection of water, food and energy. Walton, a previous Society of Environmental Journalists 2014 award winner, took top honors this year in the outstanding explanatory reporting category in the SEJ’s 15th Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment for a series on septic system pollution. Judges commended him on his “elegant writing and clean explanation.” SEJournal Online’s “Inside Story” editor Beth Daley spoke recently about the project with Walton, who lives in Seattle.

SEJournal Online: Septic systems are hidden from view and don’t often make their way into journalism series. How did you get the idea for the series and when did you know it was worth a significant amount of time?

Brett Walton: I frequently report on U.S. water infrastructure, but those stories have been entirely focused on big, central systems — that is, water distribution pipes and treatment facilities from a public or private utility. Having grown up on public water and sewer, I had never given septic systems much thought, even into my professional life. Then at a conference last August I had a conversation with a woman who works on water infrastructure and water pollution issues. She mentioned that septic systems were causing health problems in certain regions of the country, which prompted me to look into the matter. I prefer the hidden, neglected stories, and septic systems seemed to be a perfect fit.

SEJournal Online:Your research is incredibly thorough, bringing in data and anecdotes from all over the country. How do you conduct research and organize what must be reams of data to use in stories?

Walton: Water is my beat, so I read about it a lot. I have a huge archive of research papers and potential sources, and I generally know the databases to search for most angles. In this case I started with two sources: PubMed, to locate the few studies on septic systems and public health, and a septic system research center at West Virginia University. From there I followed a trail, from research studies and technical details to environmental and public health outcomes to policy and regulations. Because this was a national-level series, I had to include examples from a slew of states, to show that septic system pollution is widespread and consequential. National data is scarce.

SEJournal Online: How long did the pieces take you to report and write, and what were the project's biggest challenges?

Walton: The series took three months. I thought I might write one piece, but one turned into five. I began research and interviews at the end of September. The first piece published in mid-October and the last a few days before Christmas. I did the series alongside my regular reporting deadlines. I wrote more than two dozen other stories and attended a couple conferences in those three months, which were incredibly busy. The challenge of the reporting was to draw national conclusions from a problem whose effects and oversight are local. But I found enough common ground in maintenance problems, health outcomes and pollution struggles that I could make those claims.

SEJournal Online: You described otherwise technical and dry information in an engaging and sharp way. How do you ensure you are describing things correctly?

Walton: I interviewed dozens of people for this series. The fact-checking was asking scientists about the other studies I came across. In these conversations, I made sure that I understood the technical details well enough that I felt comfortable stepping outside the jargon when I wrote about them. As for engaging writing, the context and history is what makes these stories pop. For Long Island, it was interviewing people who remembered what the coastal waters looked like decades ago, when the bays were clear. For Alabama, it meant connecting current sanitation struggles to the civil rights movement. Once you have that, the rest is the fundamentals of good writing — the memorable image, the unexpected word.

SEJournal Online: Your project also talked a great deal about solutions, which are often missing in journalism. How do you — and Circle of Blue — approach writing about the "good" parts to solve a problem?

Walton: It was important for me to write the solutions story, which was the fifth and final piece to publish. Readers want to hear about what can be done. They want to know that we're not on an inescapable path of ruin, that there are ways out of the muck. But when doing these sorts of stories it's also important to keep professional rigor — solutions need to be vetted, explained and assessed just as well as the problems.

SEJournal Online: What was the most surprising aspect of the story to you?

Walton: I found all sorts of surprising data and anecdotes (a Wisconsin restaurant whose septic system contaminated its own well!) but the series was helpful to me in another way. It reminded me that even topics I think I might know well — such as water infrastructure — will have new angles. And that's a lesson I will carry forward.

“Inside Story” editor Beth Daley is a reporter and director of partnerships at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and affiliated with WGBH News.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 1, No. 3. 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.


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