When the Crisis Was Immense, SEJ Award-Winner Went Narrow

April 22, 2020

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Apoorva Mandavilli (lower right) reporting from Bhopal, India, for her award-winning account of the aftermath of the lethal gas leak there 35 years later. Click to enlarge.

Inside Story: When the Crisis Was Immense, SEJ Award-Winner Went Narrow

As journalists around the world scramble to cover the COVID-19 disaster, Apoorva Mandavilli’s prize-winning reporting on Bhopal, “The World's Worst Industrial Disaster Is Still Unfolding,” has special resonance. 

Her coverage, which won third place in the outstanding feature story category for the Society of Environmental Journalists 2019 Awards for Reporting on the Environment, was described by judges as “a detailed, multi-layered tale examining the lasting impacts of the 1984 lethal gas leak at the Union Carbide Corp. pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.” 

The judges added, “Mandavilli’s reporting shows, 35 years after the tragedy, the cleanup of the 70-acre site surrounding the shuttered plant is stalled. Waste pits, tainted soil and spreading groundwater contamination pose serious health threats to neighboring communities. Health care benefits due to survivors exposed to the 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas that escaped from the plant are slow to come, if at all. In short, this is a well-written environmental justice (injustice) story.”

SEJournal Online recently caught up with Mandavilli. Here is the conversation, with her advice on covering the echoes of one of the world's most famous industrial disasters.

SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?

Mandavilli: I grew up in India and I was 11 when the Bhopal gas leak happened — old enough for the images from it to be burned into my brain. I'd heard over the years that the situation was still unresolved, but I had no idea how bad it all still is until I started looking into it a few years ago.

SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?

Mandavilli: The biggest challenges were time and distance — the leak happened in December 1984 and I was living in New York City 33 years later. And I have a full-time job. So the logistics of finding the people, the documents and even the time needed to report the story properly were huge. I got a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to get myself there. Activists who are still fighting for justice gave me all the documents I needed. And I reported the story slowly, over the course of about a year.

SEJournal: What most surprised you about your reporting/findings?

Mandavilli: At first I thought the story was about the long-term public health impact of the gas leak. But when I started reporting, I realized that there was an active crisis still unfolding in terms of the contamination of groundwater all around the abandoned site. The fact that the site had still not been fully cleaned up, 33 years after the leak (it still hasn't), left me reeling. I could not fathom how the government was just letting this situation persist and worsen.

SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?

Mandavilli: I was fortunate enough to have Ross Andersen at The Atlantic take an interest in the story's potential. He helped me ensure that the article didn't just become, as he put it, a tale of very bad things happening to some poor people in a distant place, but instead helped me build narrative tension by getting the readers introduced to and invested in some key characters. 


“The tragedy is so horrific that

to make it real, I needed to 

zoom in to one small set of people.”


I also knew from the outset that I wanted to go small. The tragedy is so horrific that to make it real, I needed to zoom in to one small set of people — in this case, one street — and the impact on the people who live there. 

SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?

Mandavilli: I have a lot of reporting from my trip that I collected for other stories related to the tragedy, but never did write up. For example, I did a series of interviews around the trauma that people suffered, the high rates of suicide among survivors and the opportunities lost in the complete lack of attention to this issue, both for the people who live there and for trauma research broadly. 

But the process of writing this one long story and, to be honest, placing it in a magazine, left me burned out and I needed a break from it. By the time I felt recovered, too much time had elapsed from the reporting, and I lost the threads. If I had to do it over, I would keep those other stories I reported alive on the back burner so that I could get back to them sooner.

SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story?

Mandavilli: Find your own story. By that I mean that when I arrived in Bhopal, there was a particular story the activists, the residents and the politicians each wanted me to tell. I met a lot of people who laid out a good narrative and who were practiced at doing so — people who, after years of talking about the leak, had their stories down. Not their fault, they have just had to tell the same damn story so many times, but it's an inherent risk of helicoptering in and not having enough time to do thorough reporting on the ground. 


“Going beyond the practiced stories, and 

finding people who were not the official 

‘victims,’ was really difficult, but ultimately 

made the story richer and more powerful.”


Going beyond the practiced stories, and finding people who were not the official “victims” — some of them had not even been in Bhopal at the time of the leak — was really difficult, but ultimately made the story richer and more powerful. 

SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?

Mandavilli: I built in some mental health breaks at the end of every reporting day. This stuff was hard to listen to, and I was lucky enough that the photographer I traveled with, Raj Sarma, is a friend. I always wrote myself a quick memo of what I had heard that day so I knew what I had and what I still needed to get. But once I did that, we would go to dinner and I unwound by talking about things completely unrelated to the story. Or I would watch the Netflix show “Terrace House.”

I also did not record much, except parts of interviews I knew were getting intense, and I took notes on the rest. And I wrote down sensory details. The colors, smells and feel of the place were important to me, and I sometimes dictated thoughts to myself on my recorder and sometimes (if I was around a source) jotted them down in a tiny notebook I carried around. 

I took lots of photos on my iPhone for visual reminders later on, even though Raj was taking beautiful shots. This is specific to this story, but I also created a “map” of the neighborhood and started to fill in biographical details for all my “characters” so that I could see whom I still needed to talk to the next day. But I try to do variations of that even for other stories.

SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism?

Mandavilli: Environmental journalism is hard! The human drama in biomedical journalism, which is what I've mostly done, is sometimes easier to access. This was my first long environmental story and I found connecting the environmental impact to the human toll a bit less obvious and so a bit more challenging. Mad props to you all!

Apoorva Mandavilli is the 2019 recipient of the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, which she will join as a staff reporter in May. She is founding editor-in-chief of the autism news site Spectrum and her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker online and other publications. 

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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