Always digging for answers

As a watchdog for USA Today, Alison Young’s investigative reporting uncovered dangerous environmental issues

Summer 2019 Edition


As an investigative reporter for USA Today, Alison Young spent weeks on the road testing soil with a handheld X-ray device in neighborhoods around long-closed lead smelters as part of her Ghost Factories investigation. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

As an investigative reporter for USA Today, Alison Young spent weeks on the road testing soil with a handheld X-ray device in neighborhoods around long-closed lead smelters as part of her Ghost Factories investigation. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)

In the late 1980s, the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications offered a science writing class every semester. Alison Young (j’88) was one of the few people who signed up for it. According to her, it would usually end up getting canceled. Despite that, Young always knew she would work in that field.

“I love the science of it and it’s such an important area to cover — to explain things that impact real peoples’ lives,” Young said.

More than 30 years later, Young is still doing what she loves. As an investigative reporter for USA Today, her reporting mainly covered health, environment and consumer issues.

As a watchdog, Young found inspiration for stories in a variety of places. She said that it often comes from reading all sorts of things. Although Young read articles from different news organizations, she also pored over a lot of “what some people might consider to be boring reports.” She sorted through inspector general reports from federal agencies or Government Accountability Office reports about the Environmental Protection Agency, and is subscribed to announcements on scientific studies.

Young then took that information and used journalistic methods to go further or reveal something that’s not already known.

In her nine years with USA Today, Young said that her biggest investigative projects on environmental issues are “Ghost Factories” and “Beyond Flint.”

“Ghost Factories” was an investigation that examined old lead factories that operated before the EPA and state environmental laws existed. The objective was to determine whether there was still lead contamination in these areas.

Young was required to spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, going to neighborhoods in several states with an expensive X-ray analyzer to test soil and find out if there was still lead contamination embedded in the sites of former lead smelters. As a result of her team’s reporting, several neighborhoods underwent state and federal cleanups.

“Beyond Flint” was an investigation that stemmed from the lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Young and her team wanted to figure out if other cities had contaminated water similar to Flint.

(Photo courtesy of USA Today)

(Photo courtesy of USA Today)

Young said there is an outpouring of interest in environmental health investigations. The positive feedback comes from different levels: people who are affected by the issues, elected officials and regulatory agencies who will take action, and everyday people who are just simply interested in the work being done.

“They’re grateful to have journalists out there watchdogging and revealing these issues,” she said.

However, Young has also received negative feedback from individuals who are not happy about what she exposed, usually from people who are the subjects of the investigations. So, she strived to be fair and accurate in the reporting, and made sure that people knew exactly what she was doing.

When it comes to reporting in general, the two most important things for Young are understanding the science and facts and making the information accessible to real people. That’s crucial because some of the most vulnerable people in the country are subjected to some of the worst environmental health risks, Young said.

Young has worked in the journalism industry for most of her career and after nearly a decade, she no longer works at USA Today. Young recently became the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting for the Missouri School of Journalism. She will begin her new role on August 1. She was also previously the president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit training organization focused on quality investigative reporting. She is still actively involved with IRE.

Since she left KU, Young said the biggest change in how she does investigative journalism is technology. It has given journalists the ability to find and research any information from their desktop. The digital age of journalism also has allowed anyone working for a large or small news organization to publish information that reaches people around the world.

However, Young said that it has become increasingly challenging to gain access to what should be public information. The federal Freedom of Information Act has become flawed and broken, she said, because of how long it can take to get information from federal agencies.

“Now more than ever, information is important,” Young said. For journalists, she said, “it is absolutely imperative that we take the extra care to understand the science and that we break through the noise around environmental issues and report factual information.”

Young advises the public to learn about the problems and solutions by reading credible information from reputable news organizations and scientific institutions.

While her job had its ups and downs, Young said that she loved being paid to learn new things every single day. But the best part? She said it was doing something that makes the world a little bit better in some way, whether for an individual or for a community.

“That’s the highest calling of what we do as journalists,” Young said.

–– Angel Tran is a May 2019 graduate from Wichita, Kansas

NEW CAREER PLACES FOCUS ON STUDENTS

Alison Young has always loved teaching and sharing her passion for journalism, so when she was approached with a position to directly influence the next generation of journalists, it was too good to pass up.

Initially, Young had no intention to change jobs, and she had to ask herself early on if she was ready to leave full-time reporting. However, the more she learned about the position, the more excited she became.

The Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting is an endowed chair at the Missouri School of Journalism. In that role, Young will manage the school’s Washington, D.C., program. She will organize educational seminars for professional journalists and work with students by teaching, mentoring and developing internship opportunities. She also will organize the annual Hurley Symposium in Public Affairs Reporting.

Young hopes to show student journalists the many different types of opportunities available in the Washington area to cover the news and be strategic communicators. She also wants to use her professional experience to teach students the best practices to do journalistic work.

While it is no longer the focus of her work, Young will still be doing some investigative reporting. She is eager to start her new job on Aug. 1.

“I went places that I didn’t think I’d ever work, and it turned out to be some of the greatest experiences ever,” Young said. “This is going to be a wonderful experience to be able to give back in ways that I received from so many professors at the University of Kansas.”

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