Decades of history. Hundreds of documents. An “all-powerful, all-secret” sub-agency. Those were some of the workings behind “The United States of Petroleum,” an in-depth account of the oil industry’s close relationship with the federal government, for which Center for Public Integrity reporter Jie Jenny Zou was named a Livingston Award finalist.
The awards honor the best reporting and storytelling by journalists under the age of 35 across all forms of journalism. Finalists for the award, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Michigan, were selected from over 500 entries. They’ll move on to the final round of judging, and a winner will be named in June.
Zou, who is on the Center’s environment and workers’ rights team, previously covered statewide justice issues as a data reporter for The New York World, based out of Columbia School of Journalism, where she also graduated in 2013 with a focus on investigative journalism. Zou has also covered local and regional government in South Carolina and interned for various national publications.
We sat down with Zou to discuss what went into chronicling decades of history and data for the story.
What led you to report on this story?
We first got the idea to take a deeper look at the American Petroleum Institute over a year ago. I was chatting with my editor about how oil and gas industry groups like API were heavily involved in K-12 education while simultaneously pushing out positive industry marketing campaigns (which turned into this story we published last year). My editor remarked one day about how he’d never seen an in-depth profile of API. Here’s this group in Washington that wields this tremendous influence, but no one’s ever written about them at length before? One thing led to another and I found myself tracing back API’s history going back almost a century.
What parts of the reporting process stood out to you? What were the special challenges involved in a story that involved so much history?
I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out how to manage my time. I felt like I was being pulled in a million directions. People started joking that I was writing a book; I have never ever wanted to write a book, so this actually low-key horrified me. I despise writing. It’s reporting that I love: talking to people, finding things, connecting the dots. Luckily, my main reporting partner, Chris Young, is an incredibly organized individual. We hadn’t worked together before, but it worked out really nicely. We happened to be looking at different things involving API and would discuss our findings and suddenly overlap. Chris and I started running into the same themes and people over and over again, but through different connections. That’s when I realized we were on to something. There were also many, many spreadsheets. At one point, I had a spreadsheet to manage other spreadsheets.
Part of your reporting involved camping out at the National Archives. What did you learn from that type of reporting process that might be different from other kinds of reporting?
Going to the National Archives was both amazing and horrible at the same time. Archivists are some of the nicest, most helpful people you’ll ever meet. But the records themselves can be a mess. The records I was interested in happened to be mis-boxed, too, so I spent hours digging through dozens of boxes of papers, giant binders, and papery onion-skin pages, until realizing what I wanted wasn’t even there. By sheer luck, I managed to find the record set I actually wanted, but filed in a completely different batch. I must have easily thumbed through thousands of pages of material, never quite knowing what it was I was looking for. Luckily, I am a fast reader. I also learned that I’m more patient than I thought I was! Bonus: I now own a lot of different library cards.
While many might be generally aware that the oil industry has had a big influence in shaping policy, your story really brought home the extent of that influence and the way it has been institutionalized. Was there anything that you found surprising or that you think others would find surprising?
I was really surprised by what we found about OIRA [the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs]. It’s a little office in the President’s Office of Management and Budget. It’s a policy wonk’s dream. Small, but mighty, they call it. It’s responsible for reviewing regulation and it’s become mythologized as this all-powerful, all-secret sub-agency in DC. But if you look back at its history, which is just sitting there at the National Archives, you’ll see that its origins are pretty openly industry-centric and regulation averse. API in particular played a sizable role in OIRA’s creation, and really supported the idea of a White House agency that would allow industry to have a direct line to the President. This agency exists today and is still shaping regulation and policy. I also found out about the National Petroleum Council, a presidential advisory committee that has existed for decades and is literally located across the street from our offices. To this day, that group hasn’t provided me with records I asked for; but that’s not so much surprising as it is irritating.
What kinds of reaction or impact have you seen from the story thus far?
We’ve had some pretty good feedback. People in particular were really captivated by just how long climate change has been out there as a valid scientific theory. It turns out it was discussed as early as 1959 during an API conference. Many of the academic researchers I spoke to for the story have spent months and years digging through archives located throughout the country trying to piece together a chronology of climate knowledge. Tapping into that knowledge really pushed the story further along because these researchers live and breathe this topic.
Any reflections on being recognized as a Livingston Award finalist?
It’s a really cool thing to be recognized alongside these finalists, whose work I greatly admire and aspire to. Journalism can sometimes feel futile. You wonder if anyone is reading or listening or watching.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
What’s cool about places like the Center for Public Integrity is how truly collaborative they are. Readers see bylines, but there’s so much more that goes into a story before people even see it. Are you giving your reporters the opportunity to dig? Do you trust your reporters enough to try something new? Do you give them the support to pull off something ambitious? A lot of thanks go out to the multiple editors and reporters whose ears I talked off during the entirety of this project. My editor, Jim [Morris], in particular, had to deal with a lot. I would often send him drafts at 3 a.m.; probably not an ideal time to send an editor a draft.
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