Kendra Pierre-Louis on the Vexing Road to an Award-Winning Story
A few years ago, a chance encounter would completely upend how I saw one key climate risk – flooding. It would also, eventually, lead to a story that would win a 2022 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. And while I like to think that my writing (and the stellar editing by my editor David Rotman) had something to do with the achievement, I know that good writing only goes so far. The story shed light on a critically underreported issue, one that if not properly managed will lead to mass suffering and avoidable death. In other words, it was a textbook example of good journalism.
And yet, the line between that encounter and the finished story, one which I remain intensely proud of, was not straight. This wasn’t wholly unexpected – reporting is seldom without hiccups – but the roadblocks that I encountered were less about the work, about my subject, and more about the industry. Specifically, it is about who in journalism gets to write those long, sweeping stories that grace the cover of magazines, the richly reported features that sprawl along column inches in the newspaper, the stories that take 10, 20, 30 minutes to scroll through on the web.
There isn’t a fixed definition of what it means to write long – for some publications that can be ten thousand words, for others like newspapers, it can be 3,000 words. But however you define it, writing long is one of journalism’s prestige assignments alongside political reporting and investigations. Some would say that it’s just coincidence that those subfields tend to skew male and white. I can say from experience the truth is more complex.
By now, most of us have heard of the relationship between climate change and floods, and climate change and rising sea levels. But most of us are unaware of the link between climate change and rising groundwater. Until late 2019, I too was solidly in the unaware camp. But that winter, I spoke on a panel at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. When the panel ended, a scientist from the United States Geological Survey came up to me to say that I might look into the subject of rising groundwater. “It’s underreported,” she said.
At the time, I was working for a national outlet in New York City, thinking almost daily that I should quit my job. Without getting too in the weeds as to why, from my perspective the environment had hallmarks of a phenomenon that Kecia M. Thomas called “pet-to-threat.” Thomas, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences and an expert in the psychology of workplace diversity, coined the term to describe an experience where Black women (I’m a Black woman) are encouraged early on in their careers but as they gain competence and skill – and in my case outside attention – they face hostility in the workplace.
The way it manifested for me was a manager who kept trying to scale back my work. When I proposed an ambitious series, they suggested a stand-alone story. On more than one occasion they said I was not a team player, even though the series I had pitched would have included several other reporters on the team. It did not escape my notice that the team I had suggested was comprised of all women. It felt frequently that what I was allowed to do was based on what I had “earned” the right to do and not what the subject matter required. When I told them that the story lengths, they gave me were often too short to be submitted for awards, they scaled my word count down even more. I couldn’t help but feel this was their way of telling me I was being too uppity.
Now on the face of things this isn’t the end of the world – I didn’t enter journalism for the glory. But awards are currency in journalism, and denying me opportunities to even enter meant, in effect, denying me the ability to move on to more ambitious stories. They were limiting my ability to grow. Towards the end of my tenure, one of the few stories they gleefully assigned me was a rehash of a similar story done by the same outlet five years earlier. A little over three years later, a Black reporter would do a story that was a rehash of my story that was a rehash of a white male reporter’s story. Plus ça change. I didn’t understand why my novel story ideas were met with resistance but my rehashed suggestions were easily greenlit. I still don’t. At the same time, this push for my stories to be as short as possible also meant that sometimes key context was stripped out.
So, this was my reality when I started digging into the issue of rising groundwater. And as I dug into it two things became clear. The first was that rising groundwater was a horrific problem. As I would go on to write, “Roadways will be eroded from below; septic systems won’t drain; seawalls will keep the ocean out but trap the water seeping up, leading to more flooding. Home foundations will crack; sewers will backflow and potentially leak toxic gases into people’s homes.”
My second realization was that there was no way I’d be allowed the space to appropriately tackle the story. The subject was complex, the repercussions detailed, and all of it resting on the sort of Earth science most people don’t know much about. It was going to take a lot of words. So, after raising it a few times to lukewarm reception, I did what felt reasonable. I sat on the story. I couldn’t take it to another publication – the terms of my employment precluded that. And so, the story sat there, haunting me through early 2020 as I made the decision to start looking for a new job. As COVID-19 broke out, I was cloistered in my home chicken pecking at climate stories nobody much seemed to care about, as our immediate pandemic crisis obscured the more existential climate crisis. I eventually found a new job, one I loved, in audio journalism, but I continued to sit on the groundwater story because my new format, solutions journalism, was ill suited to a story focused exclusively on a problem.
In June 2021, about a year after I switched jobs, the Surfside condo collapsed near Miami, Florida. I started getting nervous that another reporter would make the connection between the reports of water seeping into the structure and rising groundwater. And while a few did, none that I could find made the leap that noted the issue extended far beyond Miami. It was only a matter of time, though.
A month later, I dusted off my notes and crafted a pitch to a prestige news outlet some reporters aspire their whole lives to write for. And they said yes – but with two caveats. The first was limiting the piece to 2000 words – a word count that I thought was too short, but open for negotiation. The second was that they would run it, but only on the web. The web, incidentally, is also where this outlet publishes a disproportionate number of journalists of color. I said yes anyway. But then the editor ghosted me.
Two months and several emails later, I decided to pitch the story elsewhere. The next outlet I pitched, one I had freelanced for before on shorter stories, passed saying they had something similar already in the works. So, I took the pitch on the road again and eventually MIT Technology Review said yes. The rest, as they say, is history.
I love that Tech Review got the story. I got to work with an excellent editor and a beautiful illustrator and overall, I loved the finished version of the story. It accurately conveys the risks of rising groundwater. But at the same time, I can’t help but think it shouldn’t have been this hard to get such an important story published. For a long time, it battered my sense of self. Maybe, that editor was right – I was not enough of a reporter to bring stories like these to fruition. I thought about leaving journalism. In the end, I stuck it out, and I’m still a climate journalist. It was so hard to get this story published. And I can’t help but think that had I been a white man it wouldn’t have been.