A couple of weeks ago I found myself on the other side of a note pad.
As I wrote about in this space back in February, an oil company from Calgary called Birchwood Resources has applied to build a steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) plant a mere 300 metres from Crane Lake, AB, where my family has had a cabin for the last 17 years. In situ mining made headlines recently when news broke that an uncontrolled leak had sprung at a site run by Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL) near Cold Lake (about 20 minutes from our cabin). The extraction method — colloquially called huff and puff — used on that site is slightly different from SAGD, but the incident calls into question the safety of all in situ mining.
After learning about the proposed plant last summer full-time and summer residents, campers and other concerned lake users gathered to figure out what we could do to stop the development. I volunteered for the media committee, hoping that my years working at a daily paper in Edmonton and my experience as a reporter might be helpful.
It took almost an entire year of sending out press releases, pestering journalists and generally being a pain in the ass, but finally, an Edmonton Journal reporter and a photographer came out to our lake, coincidentally, while I was there on holidays.
My takeaway from the experience: trusting a journalist to share your story is really scary. Both the reporter and photographer were seasoned, award-winning and incredibly affable. We chatted around the kitchen table, went for a boat ride (during which nature got on board with our cause and presented not only a singing loon bobbing on the glassy lake, but also a hawk and a double-crested cormorant) and rode on side-by-sides out to the proposed plant site where there are already three test wells. The whole time we talked seriously about our concerns, but also about dogs and hip replacements and Alberta politics.
The reporter jotted down notes, but besides that it felt more like a casual hang out than a real interview, a sign, probably, of his years of experience. I think I was more aware than anyone else that when you're with a reporter during time allocated for an interview you're "on the record" unless you explicitly state otherwise. When other interviewees said anything I worried could be misinterpreted or even made a joke that, if printed out of context, would not come across well, my heart lurched into my stomach and I tried politely to catch their attention and change the subject.
Besides that, I knew that the reporter was obligated to present a balanced story with words from the oil company. The head of the company had, in fact, driven six hours from Calgary to do just that. But no matter how fair the reporter was, whatever this man said was, in our eyes, going to be glossing over our concerns and that would impact how the story would come across.
Until then, I had always been on the other side of journalism. While I've understood that being trusted to tell someone's story — even if it's about a non-life threatening topic, like an arts or music event — is a privilege, I never knew how gut-wrenching it was to hand that story over. Frankly, I've always been a little offended when a source asks to see a story before it's published (something we don't do) or seemed otherwise reluctant to talk.
Now that I've been on that side I understand how strange the whole concept is. You speak with a complete stranger about something that is very important to you, sometimes sharing intimate details and anecdotes, then send them away to interpret everything you've said and turn it into a piece of writing to which the entire world has access.
And the photos — oh God the photos. I encouraged the people I knew would be speaking to the reporter to be open to posing for photos, as painful as it might be. There is nothing worse for a reporter than when a source speaks to them, but refuses to be in a photo. Often it can mean less prominent placement in a publication and, online, stories are almost never posted without some kind of art.
I ended up posing in front of a test well, splattered with mud from the ride there, dressed in a frumpy sweater, with my arms crossed and a scowl on my face. Inside, I was horrified that I might appear this way in print, but I had to trust that the photographer would not use if it I looked like a complete idiot, or if it wasn't helpful to illustrate the story.
As of Pique's press time the story has not yet run. (It's tentatively scheduled for this Saturday's paper.) Whether or not it was worth the risk remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: I'll never look at an interview the same way again.