Michael Hawthorne drops some knowledge on us

By Mitch Ryals

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Columbia, MO — By the time Michael Hawthorne was about 4 years old, his mom was already sick of his questions.

The innately curious Hawthorne continued asking them through middle and high schools as he worked on school papers, though it wasn’t until college that he realized his dream was to become a big shot newspaper reporter, he says.

During a Skype session with our class, Hawthorne answered questions about environmental reporting, an area that has become his niche after 10 years of working at the Chicago Tribune, and two series of articles he’s worked on since he’s been there.

The first, Playing with Fire involved collaboration between Hawthorne and two other reporters, Sam Roe and Patricia Callahan. The series explores the issue of chemical flame retardants from multiple angles including the companies who make the chemicals, legislation that dictates whether or not and how much chemicals can be used, the chemicals’ harmful effects on humans and some flawed research that claimed the chemicals were safe.

This series was born out of a classic reporting technique, Hawthorne says. At the end of interviews for different story, Callahan would ask her sources if there was another topic she should be investigating. Over and over again the answer came back — flame retardants.

The series has earned national recognition including a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting, the 2013 Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism, the 2013 National Headliner Award for investigative reporting, the 2013 Gerald Loeb Award for business and financial journalism, the 2013 National Press Club’s consumer award, the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative reporting, the 2012 Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service, the 2012 John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, the Nieman Foundation’s 2012 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers and the 2012 Society of American Business Writers and Editors investigative prize.

The second, an investigation of diesel exhaust at Metra train stations and on train cars was “a textbook beat story that started with reader complaints about pollution problems at commuter stations in Downtown Chicago,” Hawthorne said in an email.

After convincing his editors to rent a device that detected levels of diesel exhaust, he found the highest levels to be inside the passenger cars and in train stations closest to downtown.

“This story is a good lesson in how reporters shouldn’t take government officials at their word,” Hawthorne said in an email. “Metra officials publicly said their own testing showed there weren’t any pollution problems, but actual test results I FOIAed (obtained through the Freedom of Information Act) showed the problems were even worse that what I had found.”

Originally, Hawthorne wanted to be a political reporter. After working for the newspaper at Bradley University, Hawthorne went onto earn a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from Sangamon State University (now University of Illinois at Springfield). During his time in Springfield, Hawthorne covered the state capitol.

“That was a good learning experience because the Illinois legislature probably more so than any other in the country is a hodge podge of all kinds of issues plus corruption and things like that,” he says.

After earning a master’s degree in public affairs reporting, Hawthorne worked as a reporter for the News-Journal in Daytona Beach, Fla. It was while in Florida covering cops and local government that he developed many of his reporting skills, such as how to tell when people are lying and how to develop new sources.

After his stint with the News-Journal, Hawthorne covered state government for the News-Gazette in Champaign, Ill., a small afternoon paper, before moving to Cincinnati to work for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Finally burned out on politics, Hawthorne went to work for the Columbus Dispatch and sort of fell into what has become his niche at the Chicago Tribune for the past 10 years — environmental reporting.

The Chicago Tribune's "Playing With Fire" series investigated how two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of flame retardant chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.

The Chicago Tribune’s “Playing With Fire” series investigated how two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of flame retardant chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.

Some knowledge from Hawthorne:

1. Don’t be satisfied with an answer from a source just because they’ve been reliable in the past, he says. While reporting on the police in Daytona, Hawthorne was narrowing in on identifying a murder suspect the police had just arrested. When he contacted an officer who had been a reliable source in the past, the officer lied to his face. Public officials and people who have a lot of interaction with reporters know how to cultivate those relationships. Beware of their motivations for sharing (or not sharing) information with the media.

2. Read read read. One of the best things journalists can do, Hawthorne says, is set their own agenda. Reporters should develop a knowledge base on topics and issues that interest them, so when a news hook comes along, they’re ready to report on it. Don’t feel the need to write a story about every study you read. Rather, concentrate on connecting the dots, he says.

3. Pay attention to established or prestigious journals. They will publish the most credible information. Learn to evaluate how research is sponsored. Some studies are paid for by companies or advocacy groups that have an interest in presenting a specific point of view and will skew their results to that end.

4. Stay current with scientific and environmental news and research. Here are three places Hawthorne recommends:

5. Wash your hands after cleaning the lint out of the dryer. Dryer lint is where a lot of household chemicals accumulate, he says.

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