Renee Downing: Getting a Handle on a Scientific Mystery

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

A columnist and freelance writer, Renee Downing spent two months researching "Cancer Wars," a story about a cancer cluster in a military town outside of Tucson, Ariz., the politics surrounding it, and local resistance to an investigation of a potential environmental cause. Her in-depth account became the most e-mailed story in Tucson Weekly’s history, and it won a first-place 2005 AltWeekly Award in the News Story–Long Form category.

Downing’s next big project for Tucson Weekly is a story about the medical marijuana industry in Southern Arizona.

Where did the idea for "Cancer Wars" come from?

Deborah Frisch, who is a source in the story, contacted me. She was teaching statistics at the University of Arizona, and what she had to say about research on cancer clusters caught my interest. I knew there were a lot of cases in Sierra Vista — that had been in the paper.

Had the mainstream press covered this topic? Was your approach any different because you were writing for an alternative paper?

Carla McClain, a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star, did a story on it that was quite good. I contacted her, and she was very helpful. I’m sure she would have liked to go into depth, but she didn’t have the kind of time I did. Also, the Sierra Vista Herald had been running short little stories every time something was announced. It was a lesson to me in how important the press is in establishing a history. I just went through the paper online and picked out what had happened and constructed a chronology.

In addition, Frank X. Mullen, Jr., at the Reno Gazette-Journal, had written a prize-winning series about a similar cluster in Fallon, Nevada.

Do you have a scientific background? If not, how did you get to the point where you were comfortable enough explaining the science?

I don’t have a science background. I don’t even have a journalism background. I didn’t go to journalism school. In terms of grasping the science, it was a lot of work. I have to know the topic I’m writing about. I read the Centers for Disease Control report, I read background stuff on cancer clusters in Phoenix, on leukemia — everything I could find.  I just kept after it.

I also spent a lot of time with Mark Witten and Paul Sheppard, the two scientists in the story who were looking at a possible link between the incidence of cancer and elevated levels of the heavy metal tungsten. I would bounce ideas off of them about what I had been researching just to make sure I understood what was going on. I wanted to wrap myself around the subject so that I could speak about it with some authority.

Did you run into any problems while reporting, and how did you work around them?

The University Medical Center in Tucson refused to give me any info about the leukemia deaths. All I was asking for was for the center to confirm the dates of the diagnoses, and it was really important that that was accurate. I called the medical center’s hematology/oncology department, and they wouldn’t tell me anything, and they thought I was trying to expose very delicate information. I just had to do without the exact dates.

Why did you decide to frame the story around the Durkit family, whose 2-year-old had leukemia?

I spoke to two other families. But the Durkits were by far the most forthcoming. They are activists in the sense that they are willing to talk to the press. I didn’t prepare questions or tape the Durkits; I just sat with them.

Tell me about your writing this story.

I spent about two weeks writing. The first thing I did was make a time-based chronology. That was the basis for getting some kind of handle on it. When you’re writing anything, that’s the best way to put things in perspective: it’s like the backbone of the story. I had folders full of stuff, and I just kept pulling things out and rearranging. That was the hard part, trying to decide where to drop huge chunks of information. There were some details that my editor had to cut out, things I had learned — like all about tungsten.

I think a lot of people who end up in journalism tend to have short but intense attention spans, and they find something and really get into it, and then they just move on to the next thing. And that’s how I am: I love to get into a new topic and dig in.  And then move on to a whole new subject.

Do you discuss the process with anybody who wasn’t involved with the story while it was a work in progress?

I discuss it with my husband. Talking through it really helps.

What was public reaction to your story like?

Really good. Nobody made a fuss about it, which was surprising to me. I guess that I must have gotten things correct enough that there was nothing for anyone to say. You can’t fight facts. I tried to stick to the bare facts and not elaborate or speculate. I also did a small follow-up story.

What do you have to say in response to critics who believe that this genre of long-form journalism is dying and that any story can be boiled down to a thousand words?

Well, that’s stupid. I mean, I like to read. If something is interesting, I’ll keep reading it. I think there are people reading all over the place. There are some stories that simply cannot be told briefly. Some stories require more space so that the reader can absorb a certain amount of fact. A long-form format allows you to tell all sides of a story.

Who are some journalists whose work you admire?

Michael Pollan, Tracy Kidder, John McPhee — there are a lot of other journalists whose work I admire. I subscribe to The New Yorker and The New York Times.

What advice would you offer to writers attempting to master this craft?

The only way to do it fluently is to do it a lot and under pressure. It’s really a matter of practice. You become more confident and more aware of your shortcomings as a journalist the more you write. A good journalist should always be getting better; that’s your obligation. 

Erika Beras was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is currently a student at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.

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