UM students find connection to Libby
| June 23, 2009 12:00 AM
Serving as the capstone of a reporting experience that encompassed three months and included daily trips to a federal courtroom, a post-trial trip to Libby brought everything in focus for a small group of college students.
The contingent of 14 journalism students was wrapping up their coverage of the environmental crimes trial against W.R. Grace & Co. and a group of former executives. Following the not guilty verdicts in May, a trip to the northwestern Montana community was a must.
“Students volunteered to come up to Libby for a reaction story,” said Nadia White, a journalism professor at the University of Montana. “Many of them said it was an eye-opener for them to talk to real people. For those who made that trip, it sealed their relationship with the story.”
Six weeks prior to the trial, White and law professor Andrew King-Ries brainstormed for ideas on how they could use the event as a teaching tool while providing information to the public. The result was a blog where both student reporters and law students posted stories and legal explanations over the course of the three-month long trial.
“The trial offered the opportunity to focus on one topic in one controlled venue for a long time,” White said. “In the end, I think it produced a set of journalists with more court experience than many seasoned journalists.”
White had 14 students from her environmental journalism class involved with coverage. The trial began in Judge Donald Molloy’s courtroom on Feb. 19 and would continue on all the way to finals week in May.
Meanwhile, King-Ries wanted his law students to experience the trial by posting information to help the public understand what was going on during the complex proceedings. But the law students also helped student journalists and White said her young reporters gained a level of confidence with that resource in place.
The online reporting experience also represented what could lie ahead for many students who plan to work in journalism. White said those new media aspects of the project helped students learn how to handle the immediacy of news and writing on deadline.
“I think the project produced journalists ahead of the curve of where journalism will be tomorrow,” she said.
One of the objectives of the trial coverage was to bring news to people back in Libby. The students’ stories were made available to newspapers that did not have the ability to send a reporter to Missoula. The Western News was among those that utilized their work.
“The students really valued their readers and that was a big part of their motivation,” White said. “They never missed a day in court and were very responsible. They took it very, very seriously on getting it right.”
Over the course of the trial, White said it affected many of them “deeply in their soul” with the responsibility of reporting to people affected by asbestos.
Among those interviewed was Sally Fuchs, who moved to Libby in 1968 and represents the third generation of her family to suffer from respiratory illness.
“The corporation needs to be punished, not the individuals. The men are old, putting them in jail wouldn’t change anything,” Fuchs was quoted as saying in a story by students Kyle Lehman and Will Grant. “If they knew they were harming us, they have to live with that, that’s between them and God.”
On the Net: The UM Grace case blog by journalism and law students can be found at: http://blog.umt.edu/gracecase/