Photo by Keith Greene, News & Observer, courtesy of The News & Observer.

[This article originally appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Nieman Reports.]

The best environmental story I ever worked on began with a tip that had nothing to do with the environment.

A friendly source called investigative reporter Pat Stith at The News & Observer and told him about a state veterinarian who seemed awfully chummy with the North Carolina pork producers he was supposed to be regulating. Stith was working with Joby Warrick, another reporter, on a couple of stories involving the state agriculture department, so they added this tip to the list they were scouting. I was their editor on the stories.

Eventually we found out more about the state vet, who was indeed taking favors, but the piece about his wrongdoing had to wait. Along the way, Stith and Warrick nosed out a much more important and compelling story: Corporate hog production was expanding rapidly without oversight; the expansion was harming water and air quality and driving independent farmers out of business, and pork producers had won tax breaks and jimmied the laws and rules to disable the system that should have been regulating their industry.

The news hit the paper in February 1995 in the form of a five-part investigative report called “Boss Hog: N.C.’s Pork Revolution.” The series and months of follow-up reporting awoke citizens and leaders to a host of concerns surrounding their new local industry, and eventually brought the state’s first significant regulation of hog farms. Boss Hog also won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and other national awards including the John Oakes and Scripps Howard Meeman Award, both of which recognize environmental reporting.

Hogs were nobody’s top agenda item in North Carolina, with the exception of a citizens’ group concerned largely with odor from large hog farms. The N&O series changed that. But our motive for reporting was journalistic, not moral. Something was happening that people didn’t understand. It was a story, not a cause. And while Boss Hog led to major reform, we embarked initially not on a crusade but on a hunting expedition.

On other occasions, I’ve worked with stories that fell into what I call referee journalism. One side says this, the other says that. There’s a controversy; a vote by a state commission or a decision by county commissioners is at hand. The newspaper does a situation piece explaining the environmental issue or hazard, reflecting the differing opinions of what’s happening, offering balance, and exploring as much objective information as possible to determine what is factually provable. After some amount of fighting, lobbying, negotiating or backroom dealing, the decision is made. Reporters stick with the story until the controversy is over, then depart for the next ruckus.

Referee journalism is an essential part of daily journalism, and when done right it helps people understand more about critical decisions unfolding in their communities.

Sometimes, however, we can do stories that are even more valuable—stories that reveal new information and, at the same time, deepen people’s understanding of the larger forces at play not just in one particular environmental dispute, but in a broader set of ongoing decisions. Boss Hog was such a story and illustrates how powerful journalism can be when it breaks new ground rather than simply summing up controversy or outrage.

The agenda for environmental action is set by any of a number of actors; advocates such as the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund or other groups, government regulators, community coalitions, or industries looking for relief from rules they consider burdensome.

The agenda for environmental news coverage, however, ought to be set by news organizations. The most valuable environmental coverage is part of a long-haul commitment to journalism that exposes not just one disaster or scandal, but that explains fundamental decisions, large and small, on the way to or from such dramatic occurrences.

That kind of commitment supported us as we dug further into the doings of the pork industry. The topic was, let’s face it, obscure. But we knew we had support to follow our instincts—and our instincts told us something wasn’t right.

The tip about the North Carolina state veterinarian who might be taking gifts from hog farmers seemed like part of something bigger, and it didn’t take long for Stith and Warrick to leave that trail for another. In looking through records, talking to people, and discussing what the reporters were learning, the three of us quickly recognized the connections among hog barons, political chiefs, and rural kingpins. We also decided that we would get little, if any, usable information from the antihog groups. They were part of the story, but they were not good sources of fundamental information. Neither were state environmental agencies, which had paid little regulatory attention to the pork industry, or environmental advocacy groups, which had other issues on their priority lists. Instead, Warrick and Stith built the story one bit at a time.

In the course of all this reporting, we met weekly (all still busy with other assignments) in the newspaper snack bar to catch up. One afternoon, as Warrick told Stith and me about the massive hog barns and waste disposal systems, a logical question arose: What happens to the, well, the waste? And isn’t it a problem in Eastern North Carolina, where the water table often is measured in inches, where creeks and streams crisscross vast stretches of bogs and wetlands?

A few researchers, both in and out of government, had been looking into these issues. But no one could say how much damage had been done, or might be done. The industry simply had grown too much, too quickly, for anyone to say. The payola story had turned into an environment story, and much more.

The rest of the picture came into focus as our reporting progressed and we began mapping out our stories. The reason it mattered that pork producers were running their own show in North Carolina was that they were gambling with the land, air and water of the state’s coastal plain. Hog lagoons planted in sandy soil were leaking, according to a never-publicized study by a researcher at North Carolina State University, a land grant institution where pork producers funded many studies. Warrick dug up that study and other fundamental research that had barely seen daylight. State regulators were almost ignorant of how the hog expansion—the number of pigs had doubled in four years to seven million— had affected the environment. Moreover, they weren’t particularly concerned.

I’ve always liked environmental stories, both as an editor and as a reader. I’m not surprised by polls that show support among Americans for laws and rules that protect the air, water and other natural resources. Our readership studies show the same strong interest in stories about the environment.

The referee stories that are fodder for the daily news report are valuable, because no news organization can keep track of every environmental issue, and lawsuits do get filed. Journalists do a great service by seeking out the reality behind rhetoric offered by companies and advocates. Readers need stories that analyze the situation that prompted a proposal for a new law. They need for their local newspaper or television station to keep up with various environmental organizations, regulators and industry groups, and to report on what those players are doing and saying. Still, I think journalists and their communities profit greatly by portraying the advocates and activists as parts of stories rather than as their beginnings and endings.

In the case of Boss Hog, North Carolina’s pork industry had grown so rapidly that no one—advocates, regulators, farmers, local leaders—seemed to possess an informed and detailed understanding of what had happened, why and with what consequence. The N&O, the largest daily but not the hometown paper for most of North Carolina’s hog country, answered those questions in a way that showed the value of independent journalism for communities large and small. We had to do extensive original reporting to get the answers, because the picture offered by any of the interested parties was narrow and, given their interests, skewed. Stith had to spend hundreds of hours in the legislative library retracing the steps of Wendell Murphy, the nation’s top hog producer, who had done his industry a number of good turns in legislation he sponsored or supported during 10 years in the state senate. None of these actions had spurred controversy; none of them drew reporters’ attention, either. Backtracking showed us again how easy it is for journalists to miss stories when they don’t generate conflict. But the legislative reporting showed political influence in action and put it in the context of the larger story of Boss Hog’s expansion. The environmental damage could not be understood without an explanation of the regulations; the lax oversight made sense in light of Murphy’s legislative record; the willingness of rural counties to accept big hog farms was easy to understand given the struggling economy of Eastern North Carolina. And the characters in this drama, from homespun millionaires like Murphy to hog farm neighbors with contaminated drinking wells, made it a story about people rather than about bureaucracies and companies.

This is the kind of journalism I love best—stories that make connections for people.

A second drawback to referee journalism, I find, is that it sends reporters hopscotching from crisis to crisis, fight to fight, with little concern for long-term coverage. A “nimby” fight over a new subdivision near a creek might occupy a reporter’s time for months; once the vote is made and the issue is settled, how often does that reporter return to determine the environmental outcome? Environmental reports that expose damage often lead to task forces, study commissions or new laws. Those actions, however, are beginnings rather than endings.

Aerial view of hog operation in Sampson County, North Carolina. Photo by Robert Willett, News & Observer, courtesy of The News & Observer.

Some of The News & Observer’s most valuable reporting came after the original stories were published. The governor and legislative bigwigs responded to the series by setting up a study commission and vowing to address the public’s concerns. Legislators introduced bills to step up inspections and require new environmental safeguards on hog farms. But pork producers stalled or killed most of the initiatives. The N&O covered both the action and the stall—a process that required reporters to sit in long meetings of committees and commissions and to keep in touch with a number of sources on a daily or weekly basis. Then one morning in June, a large hog lagoon burst, spilling 25 million gallons of feces and urine into a river, and killing thousands of fish. For once, we didn’t have to follow a disaster by rushing to report the situation that allowed it to occur. Our readers knew exactly what had happened and why.

A few months after the hog series, Warrick teamed up with environment reporter Stuart Leavenworth to dig into the story behind the decline of the Neuse River, which runs from Raleigh straight through the coastal plain to fish nurseries in the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. A series of fish kills, algae blooms and other disasters had earned this river a place on an environmental group’s list of the nation’s 20 most endangered rivers. Communities along the Neuse had just endured their worst fish kill season in memory. The N&O also had reported on declining fisheries on the Atlantic Coast of North Carolina; pollution in rivers like the Neuse was one reason for that crisis.

We launched the Neuse series not just to say that there was an environmental problem, but to report why it persisted and what it meant in a larger context. That reporting involved political dealmaking among powerful farm groups and state officials, including the government. Warrick and Leavenworth dug up and pored over extensive scientific studies that had been commissioned, carried out, and left to gather dust. The reporters discovered that the urban boom in the Raleigh-Durham area—a celebrated success story in North Carolina—explained part of the pollution that was killing fish downstream along the Neuse. Raleigh’s sewage plants were pumping treated water with high levels of nitrogen into the river, and city leaders were balking at spending the money to reduce that level of pollution. Other pocketbook concerns were keeping key players—farmers, developers and marina owners—from admitting their part in the river’s demise along its run to the coast. As our understanding of the larger picture came into focus, graphics and photographs helped explain the pollution. Stories explained the political decisions and human impact.

The Neuse series did not begin as a crusade to clean up the river. Instead, we wanted to provide a reality check for readers confused by rhetoric over the Neuse’s travails. We had published dozens of stories in which the governor or state legislators vowed to clean up the river—and dozens of other stories reporting that the Neuse continued to decline in quality. Our series dug deeper to show the choices being made by people in power and the effect of those decisions on the river. Readers could judge for themselves whether they agreed with the choices. Again, we used environmentalists, government regulators, scientists and farmers as sources, but not as starting points.

The Neuse series spurred plenty of government action and public discussion, as well as a flood of calls to key players (everyone from scientists to industry lobbyists) whose names we listed with the series.…

The News & Observer clearly has an agenda for environmental reporting: We want to do it well. We devote reporting and editing resources, and a good bit of newsprint, to environmental coverage. We make choices about what stories to explore in depth and which ones to skip, and our pages reflect those decisions. But our best environmental stories, like the best ones in print and on broadcast around the country, reflect an understanding that very few informed sources are also uninvolved. Experts often have personal interests on the line, or longstanding beliefs that color their appraisals. Thus journalism becomes even more valuable; we might not be purely objective, but we certainly can be detached. And rather than simply reporting accusations, claims and study results, we can take a more active role in helping readers and viewers understand environmental issues as part of broader social and governmental trends.

In recent months, readers who have called and written to me have expressed gratitude for the depth of The N&O’s reporting both on the hog industry and on environmental hazards around the state. We take this as encouragement to do more—not just about big environmental threats, but about the unsexy and ultimately crucial issues related to urban growth in formerly rural areas. Other journalists might not see fame and fortune in covering silt buildup in creeks, failures of municipal sewage plants or the politics of environmental impact statements, but I think the big stories down the road are lurking in the thousands of little questions we encounter every day about what happens when dramatic change is forced on land, water or air. Our lesson from Boss Hog is that sometimes the best stories literally are right under our noses.

By the way, Pat Stith did get to do his story on the wayward veterinarian. He had taken favors. Our story brought a mild reprimand from his bosses, and he kept his job.

Melanie Sill, a 1994 Nieman Fellow, is Assistant Managing Editor for special projects at The News & Observer of Raleigh. Her work as an editor includes a number of awardwinning series, including “Children on the Edge,” a 1993 series on juvenile crime in North Carolina that won a National Headliner Award, and “Boss Hog: N.C.’s Pork Revolution,” which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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