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Eco-Roundup: Investigative Research Tips, Native Photography, and What I Said at That Panel

Every month, I assemble a round-up of stories I’m following and issues I’m covering, with palate cleansers at the end.

Hope you’re all well and that the start to the new year hasn’t been too jarring. Consider this my end-of-year Eco-Roundup, since I’m calling January 8 the official start of my 2024. In 2023, I was grateful to be surrounded by friends who are doing magical and important work. Below, you’ll find a recommendation for a groundbreaking Native photographers exhibition in Minneapolis, details from a super important report about systematic discrimination against Haitian immigrants, and info about a must-read newsletter just launched by one of the most brilliant researchers in the news business. All three projects are led by friends, and I plan to share more work from my community in the year ahead.

As for my own work, I spent this year investigating how the state has branded Cop City opponents as terrorists, delving into tens of thousands of new public records about the criminalization of Dakota Access Pipeline opponents at Standing Rock, uncovering how the pipeline company Enbridge paid Minnesota police millions to respond to protests, and continuing to publish stories about how the climate crisis is hurting and killing people in prisons. One of the best surprises of the year was joining Amy Westervelt’s podcast Drilled as a senior editor, where I get to tell audio stories, practice editing, and work with some of the climate journalists and storytellers I admire most, including Molly Taft and Mary Annaïse Heglar.

By far the worst part of 2023 was Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian people in Gaza. There is no way to justify the killing of more than 20,000 people, including at least 70 journalists, living on a tiny strip of land. The U.S.-funded mass killing and displacement of Palestinian people in Gaza is the biggest story going into 2024 and one even environmental journalists should be finding ways to tell. This year, I spent a lot of time organizing with the National Writers Union’s Freelance Solidarity Project to support media workers facing retaliation for their speech on Israel and Palestine, and I’d like to start this newsletter with more on that.  

In case you missed it:

On Thursday, I spoke at a “Know Your Rights” panel hosted by the National Writers Union, meant to share resources with media workers as they express their views on Israel and Palestine. We didn’t record the panel, but here’s what I said:

I’m here to give a brief preview of a project that the National Writers Union has been working on. We’re preparing a report documenting cases of retaliation against media workers for their speech on Israel and Palestine since October 7. This report is based in part on responses to a duo of surveys that NWU distributed asking media workers to share their experiences, and it’s also based on open source information: stories that have been shared via social networks and news stories. So we’re in the midst of verifying the cases and hope to have this out in the next few weeks. 

I wanted to share some early results, because I think it helps set the stage for understanding the problem that this panel seeks to confront. 

We’ve found that dozens of media workers have faced social media suppression, been terminated, had stories killed, or faced online harassment for criticizing the Israeli state or expressing support for Palestinians. Among these media workers are reporters, authors, poets, critics, playwrights and content producers for businesses and nonprofits. 

Book launches, award ceremonies, and performances of works centered on the Palestinian experience have been canceled, in a moment when these writers’ voices are more critical than ever. Groups like StopAntisemitism have used social media to brand writers who have criticized Israel as anti-semites, encouraging their employers to terminate them. 

In a number of cases, employers have threatened to cancel contracts or dismiss workers if they do not cease sharing their views about Palestine on social media or in solidarity letters. We’ll hear later about how 38 Los Angeles Times journalists have been prohibited from covering anything relating to Israel or Palestine for at least three months after signing a letter condemning Israel's killing of journalists in Gaza. And at the same time, a number of reporters and editors at national and local publications have been terminated, or pressured to resign because of their speech. 

I want to share two experiences that came to us, that I think help illustrate the range of issues people are facing:

One is from a Muslim American communications worker who produces content for nonprofits. 

She posted “I stand with Palestine” on a neighborhood Facebook page in New Jersey. In return, a local rabbi posted information about where her family worked and an onslaught of online harassment followed. She has been blasted repeatedly as an anti-semite. People posted bad reviews of her husband’s business and bothered other fam members. At one point a car parked in front of their home on a dead-end-street for hours. The incidents made this media worker feel hesitant to associate with organizations working on the issue of Palestine. The harassment has continued for three months.

Another account comes to us directly from a freelance journalist:

“I received an email from my editor that three of my print stories – two that had been filed — were being killed without any explanation of why. When I followed up via phone call to understand why they were being killed, my editor said it was due to violating the outlet's social media guidelines. I asked what specific posts and the editor said they couldn't comment further. My editor did say they would pay me out for the two print stories I filed, but would not pay a kill fee for the third story I had begun reporting over a month ago. I was not covering anything related to the war for the outlet.

 “My social media expressed solidarity with the (at the time) approximately 4,000 Palestinian people killed in recent days, along with expressing sympathy to the innocent Israelis killed by Hamas. Along with sharing posts about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, I was also sharing posts from Jewish perspectives on the situation and highlighting accounts of international antisemitism going on. A lot of my posts were about debunking mis- and disinformation. 

“I was never shown these social media guidelines as a freelancer and was never once told they applied to me.” 

We've also heard from dozens of media workers who haven't experienced overt retaliation but who are experiencing significant and significantly increased pressure to censor their own speech, and most report that they believe they would be at risk of termination (or not receiving future assignments, if freelance) if they were to cross the (typically  undefined) line. This illustrates how the lack of protection for speech impacts all media workers, not just those who actually do speak out.

I should say that so far none of our survey respondents have reported retaliation for pro-Israel speech. 

Suppression of speech on Palestine is one of the most critical workplace issues media workers are facing right now, and it is urgent that the labor movement — that means us, the workers — think of creative ways to push back against it. We all know that there is much more at stake than just our jobs. If media workers cannot use our voices to describe violence against some of the world’s most marginalized people — and against our own colleagues, at least 70 Palestinian journalists killed since the war began — it is easier to kill them and displace them. This is a moment for media workers to think deeply about what kinds of values and policies produce good journalism and which are preventing us from speaking truth to power.

“I do not call what I do ‘searching,’ I call it ‘finding.’”

Legendary news researcher Margot Williams just launched a newsletter, Desk Set Research, that you must follow if you are a journalist, documentarian, or researcher of any kind. Margot and I were on The Intercept’s research team together, back when I was a fact-checker, and she taught me much of what I know about investigative reporting. She’s been doing this work for more than 40 years and has provided training sessions to hundreds of journalists. In her first posts, she’s already provided loads of tips and links for finding people, digging up info on corporations, and using publicly available databases. In coming days, she promises to share the tools she used to complete her latest data project, which analyzes court records to challenge the idea that federal judges have been hard on January 6 defendants.

Desk Set Research is named after a 1957 Katherine Hepburn movie about “the computerization of a television network’s research department.” Margot makes it clear that she’s writing this in a moment where, as she puts it, “’computerization’ in the guise of Artificial Intelligence is seen as a threat to our profession, and targets us for layoffs.” In fact, me and Margot’s research department at The Intercept was the first target of several rounds of layoffs that eventually led to me leaving. Margot seeks to start a conversation about the value of newsroom researchers, in an era of shrinking newsrooms. 

“Sick with COVID and without any heat”

This Sarah Sax / Christopher Blackwell piece from last November shows the texture of climate crisis impacts on prisons in a way I haven't quite seen before. The impacts are highly localized and seasonably specific, and they overlap with other kinds of environmental disasters. The piece, published by Type and High Country News, focuses on Washington, but every prison in the state is different. In one facility, located in a wet area, spring flooding happens alongside PFAS contamination from military jets. In another, the most miserable part of summer heat is that outdoor recreation gets canceled. At that unit, people are not allowed to even stand or walk around in the dayroom. Extreme heat means deprivation of exercise — which compounds agitation, depression. Everywhere, deterioration of facilities is a problem. The report found that eight out of 12 Washington correctional facilities can’t support the electrical load temporary air conditioners require during a heat wave. It’s exciting to see investigative news publishers investing in reporting on the impact of the climate crisis on prisons and working with incarcerated journalists. The reporting was undoubtedly deepened by the fact that Blackwell himself is incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center.

"We are interpreting these acts as racist, because wherever we go, we are the ones who suffer.”

A report by Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees and TakeRoot Justice released in November exposes a bureaucratic nightmare with severe consequences for Haitian refugees. A U.S. immigration program called Humanitarian Parole allows people to temporarily live in the U.S. if there are “urgent humanitarian reasons.” Part of the reason it’s so valuable is that it grants access to employment authorization. However, because of increasingly short parole periods, and huge delays in employment authorization applications, many people granted humanitarian parole cannot actually work. The system seems to set them up to end up in highly exploitative work situations. Among other things, the report recommends expanding humanitarian parole periods to five years and streamlining the employment authorization process.

This report relied on what’s known as participatory action research, which my friend Irene Linares, who worked on the report, explained to me basically means that people impacted by a problem do research designed to address it. She first introduced me to the concept when I was thinking about how to organize for fair pay for freelance media workers. I imagine this approach was particularly valuable for a subject like this, which is hurting a lot of people but doesn’t draw headlines the way it ought to. Irene pointed me to this toolkit for using participatory action research, which could be good for many of us doing labor organizing.  

Palate Cleansers

I cover topics that are heavy and distressing to take in, so I'm ending these posts with things that make me feel grounded: food, nature, community.

Something Delicious: Old Bay Shrimp

Every year on Christmas Eve, my mom makes this wonderful, vinegary peel-and-eat shrimp. I’ve long imagined it as an old family recipe — and it is — but I learned this year that the family got it off the Old Bay box. Their web site says to eat it with cocktail sauce, but I say find a remoulade recipe instead. Yummy yum yum.

Urgent update: I forgot to mention that my mom also adds a WHOLE head of garlic to the recipe. This is essential.

Garden Update: In Repose

Now if only it would snow.

Bulletin Board: Native Photography, 1890 to Now

When I was visiting family in Minneapolis over the holidays, I made it a priority to visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s In Our Hands: Native Photography, 1890 to Now. My friend Jaida Grey Eagle, an excellent photojournalist who I worked with on Enbridge Line 3 reporting, co-curated it, alongside Casey Riley and Jill Ahlberg Yohe. The exhibition is nine rooms full of photographs by all kinds of Native photographers. There’s work by photojournalists like Dorothy Chocolate Carseen and Kalen Goodluck, alongside more conceptual pieces, like Sarah Sense’s Custer and the Cowgirl with Her Gun, which weaves together photos like a quilt.

I loved a photo by Jennie Ross Cobb from the turn of the century, of friends from her Cherokee community eating watermelon. As co-curator Jill Ahlberg Yohe put it, “Cobb’s photographs stand in stark contrast to the photographs of Native individuals by non-Native photogrphers of her era, who preferred stiff and sullen portraits, using props deemed ‘authentic.’ Cobb’s photographs provide intimate glimpses of Cherokee people, comfortable and confident, dressed in fashionable 1900s attire, and thriving within their own homelands.” If you’re in the Twin Cities, you must go visit, and if you’re not, consider getting your hands on the catalogue.