Together with your team you have uncovered the unknown history of Exxon’s own research on climate change. What were the major challenges in retrieving this company’s sensitive information?
Initially, we were looking at several companies to understand what they knew about climate science and when they started their research. We assumed their knowledge coalesced in the 1990s. But then we heard from a former US government scientist that Exxon was doing its own climate research in the early 1980s. We had to retrieve the documents, of course, to prove it, and we wanted to find people involved in Exxon’s programme. We found documents that pushed the start time back even further, into the late 1970s. But even with this information, the problem became finding people still alive, still of a sound mind and willing to talk. After investing a lot of time on LexisNexis and Google, phone calls and letters, we did find those individuals. Nearly all spoke on the record, a surprising fact given the sensitivity of the topic.
How do you think whistleblowing has changed investigative journalism? From your perspective, do you support whistleblowing, and if so, how would you encourage it?
I do not think the people we spoke to would define themselves as whistleblowers. But we continue to look for such people. Certainly, the revelations made by Edward Snowden revived the hopes of many journalists of finding whistleblowers. I think the way to encourage whistleblowers to emerge is to assure their safety. Not everyone can flee the country as Snowden did. Many people have family and other obligations that they cannot ignore. So, as a reporter, you have to make clear through your work that you understand the risks they are taking. Sometimes a whistleblower might not realize that a quote, even given anonymously, could expose him or her. As a reporter, you need to bear in mind that these people are generally not used to dealing with the press. Then there is the issue of technology: some investigative media use apps such as SecureDrop, where people can disseminate documents and make recommendations. I plan to invite InsideClimate to use that site too. And if whistleblowers make contact with us in a more direct way, we need to guide them by telling them not to use work computers, work phones, and even their home phones or personal cell phones. Use burner phones. Use a post office box. They are doing you a huge favor. Treat them as you would like to be treated. This golden rule works pretty well.
Gaining access to public interest information held by private sector bodies is hampered by corporate interests and a lack of leverage by the public. Where do you see the first step in improving this access?
This is a hard one. I do not know if there is a one-size-fits-all answer. I think there are multiple pressure points to push for greater transparency. Shareholders can introduce initiatives. If law enforcement suspects wrongdoing, they can investigate. As far as reporters go, what we need to do is look. So much of what happens is in plain sight. But for institutions, especially at the top editors level, a commitment must be made to give reporters the time and resources to dig deeply. That is often hard to justify, especially during a time when the internet constantly demands news, and media budgets are shrinking.
Do you think that all information should be accessible to the public? Should governments and corporations share everything? Where should the line be drawn?
I do not think all information should be made public. Companies rightly keep for themselves trade secrets and personnel issues. Governments have issues of national security to consider. But where the line should be drawn is always a matter of case-by-case discussion.
How can the public be brought into the fold? How can they be compelled in making access to information universal?
The reaction I have seen to our Exxon series gives me great hope that people care. They just need to be informed and it’s our responsibility, as reporters, to bring the information to them. Social media and traditional media help to spread our stories. Then advocates and law enforcement have the challenge of demanding greater accountability. Not everyone knows about our series or some other great series that I have seen in the US this year. But there have been enough people in Congress, among them regulators, law enforcers, shareholders and common people that pressured Exxon and others to reveal what they knew about climate science and how they used that knowledge.
How do you view the current trend of data journalism?
I think it is enormously exciting. It gives a real scope to important issues. For instance, a painstaking compilation of national data this year by The Guardian and The Washington Post made clear how African-American and Latinos are disproportionately represented among the unarmed victims of police shootings. When you reveal data, then it is more difficult to be misguided. Good data visualization and graphics also make the numbers and scope accessible and more interesting. But data cannot replace ‘good old fashioned shoe leather.’ The data helps expose the big picture by showing the important trends. But reporters also need to find people who can share their sources. Further, these sources tell human interest stories, and that is what readers want: to connect with other human beings.