A map turtle released in Wilder Creek. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region
Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer won a Pulitzer Prize this year for their InsideClimate News series “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” which looked the impact of a diluted bitumen or “dilbit” spill in Michigan.
Elizabeth says she discovered the spill while looking at energy and environmental concerns as an election issue. She realized the spill in the Gulf had overshadowed the one in Michigan. “The local papers had covered it, but it was not on the radar screen of anybody else,” she says.
Many months later, the three-part series and epilogue as well as an e-book launched on the InsideClimate News site. (A follow-up version of the e-book is now on Amazon.) Reporter Lisa Song, who did the scientific research for the series, described it as a “suspenseful tale like a crime thriller” when I spoke with her for a previous post.
That’s partly because Elizabeth and her editors chose cinematography as the writing style early on, Elizabeth says. “It’s important what you put in and what you leave out,” she says. “If you do a notebook dump, readers will be lost.”
That style is apparent from the beginning. Elizabeth says she met the lead character John LaForge when she traveled to Marshall, Mich., in November 2011. She starts the series with him noticing an “acrid stench” as he left his home. When he returns later, she writes:
“LaForge said he was stooped over the creek, looking for the source of the gunk, when two men in a white truck marked Enbridge pulled up just before 10 a.m. One rushed to LaForge’s open front door and disappeared inside with an air-monitoring instrument.
The man emerged less than a minute later, and uttered the words that still haunt LaForge today: It’s not safe to be here. You’re going to have to leave your house. Now.”
Elizabeth says she and editor Susan White worked closely from the first draft to add the “little bones, flesh and skin” to the skeleton outline, she says. “In telling a story, it helps to have more than one set of eyes,” Elizabeth says. “The writing was back and forth, line by line. We had to keep the reader coming along.”
Elizabeth organized her notes by sources, she says. Separating by source allowed her to easily find notes from neighbors, Enbridge officials and others as she worked through the story, she says.
Elizabeth does not have a feature writing background like many reporters who write long narratives. But, she says, “It’s something my brain seems to be able to do.”
She’s using lessons learned from writing the Dilbit series to write a book about a cross-country bike ride and cancer survivor, she says. She left InsideClimate News last year to write the book.
She was working on the book when an Associated Press reporter called to interview her about winning the Pulitzer Prize, she says. It was her birthday and she hadn’t heard the news. “I said, ‘You’re making that up!’” Then she called a friend who confirmed the win. “It still feels unreal.”
The reporters and editors had to “steal time” to get the project done because of the organization’s small staff. Elizabeth kept going because there was something wrong, she says. She also had sources like LaForge who – despite her warning that she would call often, talked to her because they wanted to help others.
“We didn’t do this because we thought we needed to win an award,” she says. “We did the series because it’s egregious and there are too many situations like this.”