Watchdog Q&A

Published — October 25, 2019

Q&A: Lisa Song on MIT Media Lab’s illegal dumping of wastewater

Introduction

We’re continuing our Q&A series with reporters who have published powerful investigative stories. This week, we’re featuring ProPublica reporter Lisa Song, who reported on how researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab dumped wastewater underground that had nitrogen levels that were 20 times above the legal limit. When water contains large amounts of nitrogen, it can kill fish and deprive infants of oxygen. After ProPublica and WBUR contacted MIT for comment, an institute official said the lab in question was pausing its operations. 

How did you get the story? What led you to pursue it?

ProPublica and WBUR got a tip from a former employee at the Open Agriculture Initiative, one of the projects under the MIT Media Lab. Babak Babakinejad, the whistleblower, had repeatedly warned his boss Caleb Harper about their wastewater problem. At one point, Harper scolded him for emailing health and safety officials without going through Harper first. Babakinejad became so frustrated with the process that he decided to go public by talking to reporters. We took on the story because the Media Lab was already under scrutiny for accepting funds from Jeffrey Epstein, and reporters at Business Insider and The Chronicle of Higher Education had reported that Harper’s project couldn’t do what it had advertised. The wastewater angle added another layer of problems: here was a university with enormous resources and a ton of technical expertise, yet the lab was under investigation for a fairly simple environmental waste problem. It expanded the accountability beyond the Media Lab to the institute’s health and safety office. Babakinejad provided crucial emails and documents, including months of lab results on nitrogen levels in the water. After we contacted MIT and began asking questions, the institute paused operations at Harper’s lab until it could find a solution.

What were the challenges of reporting and how did you navigate them? 

There was a lot of technical data in the documents we got from Babakinejad, and it wasn’t easy to piece together the full story. We asked Babakinejad to walk us through the events several times, and talked to scientists and regulators to ensure accuracy. We also had to make it clear that there’s no data on whether this wastewater is contaminating local drinking water. We needed to be accurate but not alarmist. Finally, we were working on two stories at once — an online written version where I took the lead, and a radio story by Max Larkin at WBUR. So there were multiple drafts going around, and twice as many editors since everything had to go through the editors in both newsrooms. We were also trying to work quickly in case we got scooped. It was chaotic, but so worth it, and the WBUR collaboration meant our story reached a lot of people in the Cambridge area.

The takeaway: You don’t know where the next story will come from – so be nimble. 

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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