Trusting News: Quick turnaround, or dig deeper?
By Scott Blanchard/StateImpact Pennsylvania
A Mariner East 2 construction site is shown in Edgemont Township, Delaware County. Officials say the company will pay to clean up environmental violations in addition to a $12.6 million fine. (Photo: Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
In late December, StateImpact Pennsylvania correspondent Jon Hurdle was forwarded an email with an interesting attachment:
It was a PDF of text messages between a Wolf administration aide and the then-acting DEP secretary, talking about the Mariner East 2 permitting process, around the time the permits were approved.
Pipeline opponents have alleged Wolf put political pressure on DEP to approve the permits. The administration denies that occurred. The texts, we thought at that moment, could reveal if that charge is true.
If you read StateImpact Pennsylvania’s piece “Mariner East 2: Texts raise questions about Wolf administration’s role in permitting process,” by Susan Phillips and Hurdle, you know about the news we published.
And you also know the texts were not the smoking gun that pipeline opponents have been hoping for.
How we got from that email to what we published about a month later is an example of how, sometimes, it pays to hold what could be a significant story in order to do more reporting – even when getting information out more quickly is an option.
Hurdle recognized the potential of the texts right away — he, along with Phillips and StateImpact staffer Marie Cusick, have covered the Mariner East 2 project since 2015. That coverage included a story in March 2017 by Phillips and Hurdle that documents showed the project’s permits had been approved with conditions.
One of the first things we did was track how we’d gotten the texts. They had come in an email from a person we knew – but the texts had actually been given to a third party, the Clean Air Council, by DEP’s lawyer as part of the legal discovery in a court case.
So: We needed to make sure the texts we had were the same ones CAC had received from DEP’s lawyer. We asked, and they were.
Next, we could have treated this as, essentially, a breaking news story: We had a set of texts related to an ongoing and significant issue. We could use what they said, get reaction from the main players (Wolf administration, pipeline opponents and DEP) and publish a story.
But we read the texts, and immediately had lots of unanswered questions.
For example, one text from a Wolf aide, Yesenia Bane, to the DEP secretary Patrick McDonnell said, “This needs to be done by 1 pm the latest.”
What did “this” refer to?
Another read: “Please no deficiency letter to Sunoco until we can get you to update mary/Gov.”
What did that mean?
If you’re a pipeline opponent, you could read those exchanges as proof that the Wolf administration was improperly directing a process. If you’re looking at the texts independently — which is our job — it was clear that there could be other explanations.
We wouldn’t know the answers to those questions and others until we asked not only for reaction to the texts, but for information about them. Reporting to that level of detail often takes time.
We wanted to be first with the news, and we knew that, as we reported, the CAC (or, perhaps, another pipeline-opposition group) could simply post the texts to a website at any time. But we wanted to add context and meaning to the exchanges.
So we committed to reporting as deeply as we could, and we would publish when we were ready.
We didn’t get all of our questions answered, and you‘ll see that when you read the story. StateImpact reporters and editors talked about whether there could be more texts to get, what the redacted texts said, and even whether it would be valuable to publish at all with those things still unknown.
But Phillips and Hurdle did enough reporting around the texts to write a story that we believe adds knowledge and insight to an ongoing issue.
We focused on the writing, particularly on how the story “sounded.” A story like this could easily sound like it’s waving the flag for opponents, or buying the administration’s response.
We tried to make sure the story was about what the texts literally said, what we could verify about them, and what they meant both to opponents and to the administration and DEP.
The texts in hand were informative, perhaps a piece of a puzzle of an issue that demands more reporting. We hope that’s what you take from reading the story.
— Scott Blanchard is the editor of StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WITF, WHYY, WESA and the Allegheny Front that covers the commonwealth’s energy economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.