Checking the Trash
By Viki Reath
Viki Reath is a reporter for Environment Week in Washington, D.C.
Two years ago, reporter Emilia Askari pitched a story to her editors at the Detroit Free Press: Have someone inspect the newspaper's environmental safety record, then print the results. The daily, after all, is the nation's ninth largest paper and one of Michigan's largest employers; why should its reporters track the records of every local company except their own?
Last summer, parent Knight-Ridder agreed to allow an auditor to tour the Free Press offices, delivery garages and riverfront printing plant. Askari was assigned to write the story.
In late September, the results filled much of the front page of the business section. A second article inside chronicled the paper's sins, which included two leaking underground gas storage tanks and less-than-stellar recycling efforts.
Overall, however, the paper got high marks, and Askari's article was not without benefit to the Free Press as a public relations tool. For example, her story began by noting how unusual it was for a newspaper to publicize the results of an internal audit, then explained that the Free Press hoped, in part, to set an example for other businesses. To that end, it had hired an "outside" inspector to conduct the audit.
Inside, Askari explained that the "outside" auditor was in fact an inspector from the Newspaper Association of America, an industry group of which Knight-Ridder is a member. That was the only way the company would allow the exercise, she told readers. Ex..cutive Editor Heath Meri- wether later said in an interview that the NAA's bid of $6,700 was the only one the paper could afford.
Askari's story was a lesson in explanatory journalism. She told readers what NAA auditor Don Hensel planned to investigate, how environmental audits work, and included details of political maneuvering during his visit. For example, when Hensel expressed *oncern that the ink used to print the paper is petroleum- rather than soy-based, his company chaperone pointed out that baby oil is petroleum-based as well.
Askari also reported on predictable sparring between the union and management. After the Newspaper Guild likened the NAA audit to "getting a tobacco industry consultant to tell you if smoking is hazardous to your health," CEO Frank Vega shot back that even an audit by Jesus Christ wouldn't have satisfied the union.
"It was extraordinary the attention paid to every word" of the story, Askari says. "It wasn't like information was withheld, but it was a very awkward process, making sure the Knight-Ridder side was fully explained.... At times some editors questioned myHmotives, as if I were some sort of spy for Greenpeace or the union."
Meriwether says he was pleased with her efforts. "The people being written about, the people most affected, felt it was pretty straightforward and fair," he says. "Vega didn't send me any candy, but he also didn't have any complaints."