{ Q&A with Osha Gray Davidson, pt. 1: on covering wildfires, treating sources with respect, and pitching science stories to mainstream mags }

May 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

Just hours after Osha Gray Davidson returned from a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, 19 firefighters died in a wildfire a few minutes north from his home. That night, using knowledge gained from the fellowship, Davidson pitched a story to Rolling Stone and traveled to Yarnell before even receiving a reply. His story, “The Great Burning,” tells how climate change, development, and political interests disrupt natural fire ecology and human communities.

osha-gray-davidson-hair-cropped-300x230Davidson is an award-winning freelance author and photographer who writes about climate change and the environment for Earthzine, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones, among others. His latest project involved covering an international conference that decided the future of earth observation. In Part 1 of this interview, he gave me the run-down on writing “The Great Burning,” drawing humanity out of subjects, and live-blogging a major international conference

I haven’t told him this yet, but after we got off the phone, I broke out my typewriter, wrote “Remember when you wanted to write for Rolling Stone?,” clipped the “National Affairs” banner from his article and pinned them up on my office’s cork board. He’s truly an inspiring person, and I’m so glad we had the chance to talk.

{ Check back soon for Part 2 of this interview, in which we discuss growing up in the Midwest (!) and how telling human stories and embracing bias can bring a little activism—just a little—to science journalism. }

When you write for mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, or The New Republic, do you have a different approach in writing and editing than when you write for something like Earthzine?

The story itself is generally something that I want to do anyway, and something that I think is an important story, and think I can do a good job on. The pitch is different, but the piece itself is generally the same. I’ll target the pitch based on the place itself, but also the editor.

I had started working with the Rolling Stone National Affairs editor before at Mother Jones on a climate change story, and he asked me to pitch to him at RS. The first piece I did with him was about timber sales in the Tongass National Forest. I was surprised at first that Rolling Stone wanted this kind of article. But it wasn’t just that editor, it was others, like [managing editor] Will Dana, who I worked with on the wildfire story.

My pieces weren’t pitched as science pieces, but as environmental and policy/politics pieces. Climate change was always a big part of the story, from the pitch forward. Those are the draws – it’s not science or rock music. With the fire story, the essential structure was mine, but we did work together on balancing the amount of attention given to fire ecology, climate change development, and politics.

“My pieces weren’t pitched as science pieces, but as environmental and policy/politics pieces. Climate change was always a big part of the story, from the pitch forward.”


How many people did you interview for “The Great Burning?” I counted 18 sources.

That’s how I do stories, and it has its good side. But it will also be my downfall because I feel compelled to be encyclopedic on something before I write it. I did dozens and dozens of interviews. Most of them were email interviews, but a large number were on the phone. And I went up to Yarnell several times and interviewed lots of people: firefighters from different firefighting agencies, experts and residents.

Obviously you can over-research things, and that is a problem, but you don’t necessarily find the gems that you need unless you do that. The best research I think is interviewing people and people who are actually touched by an event like that.

That comes out in the lede with the woman who lost her house.

I have my wife to thank for that one. She’s a former journalist and came up to Yarnell with me. She was just hanging out and had gone to the place to where people from Yarnell had been evacuated to. She interviewed this woman and said she was willing to talk to me about it.

I love talking to people anyway, to meet people and find out what their life is like. Being nosy, essentially. That’s such an important, vital part of being a journalist—being open and respectful, not seeing them as a character in the story, but just [talking as] two human beings at that point. Treating them with dignity, making them feel comfortable enough to tell their story, and then not burning them is really important.

“That’s such an important, vital part of being a journalist—being open and respectful, not seeing them as a character in the story, but just [talking as] two human beings at that point.”


How did you know where to begin? Did you have experience reporting on fires before this story?

I did a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, and that’s what led to the article for Rolling Stone. I got to spend some time with a fire expert, and he was telling us things about fire that I had never heard about. I got back from that fellowship just hours before these firefighters died. Because I had just finished this fellowship, I knew the right people to talk to, and that I night I wrote a query to Will Dana and before I heard from him the next morning, I drove up to Yarnell. Obviously, it was a great tragedy, but because I had just done that fellowship I could do that story. I recommend applying for as many fellowships as you can.

Illustrating the human side of a tragedy is one thing, but how do you draw humanity out of scientists?

That’s easy, actually; Just get them talking about their work. Then there’s all the essential tricks of the trade where literary nonfiction comes in—what they’re wearing, how they say things, speech patterns, telling details. In literary novels, those details let you see into the interior life of the person. We can do that in journalism, the only difference is you can’t make that up.

I interviewed a medical director of Doctors Without Borders about his time in Haiti, working on cholera [article here]. He said if you don’t treat somebody immediately at this certain symptom, “You’ll have a lot of bad outcomes.” I knew exactly what he meant, but it was an opportunity to draw him out as a person.

So I said, “What do you mean about ‘bad outcomes?’” There was a long pause, and he said, “It means death.” It was painful for him to say it, I think. So in this story, I include this pause. I hope people read into that, this doctor insulating himself from the pain and suffering. Then to drop that and be vulnerable is an amazing thing.

“I hope people read into that, this doctor insulating himself from the pain and suffering.”


And how do you do that with politicians? I noticed in “The Great Burning,” that all of the congressmen’s quotes come from hearings and official statements.

I gave up on that a long time ago, on career politicians. It’s not really an interview. There’s a saying [among politicians]: You don’t answer the question you were asked, you answer the question you wish you were asked.

But they are human beings, so I try to treat them with the same kind of human dignity in writing about them. For another RS piece on Tongass National Forest in Alaska, I interviewed Mark Rey, who was an agriculture undersecretary for the National Forest Service under Bush. I just asked him straightforward questions. Actually, we joked around a bit, which I try to do to get them to be more forthcoming. Just try pushing them, and if they evade your questions, work around that.

You chimed in on the comments online for the wildfire piece. Do you feel like it was worth wading into the fray, particularly with readers like the guy declaring upfront that RS is a “liberal rag”?

I like the give-and-take in the comments section and almost always participate. I won’t debate the existence of anthropogenic climate change, however. It’s a waste of time and bandwidth analogous to debating creationism. I have no regrets about the conversation you mentioned. The writer’s view that RS is a liberal rag was irrelevant. If the comments are merely name-calling, I ignore them. If they raise an issue, I try to respond to that.

You recently liveblogged the GEO-X Conference, the largest assembly of Earth Observation researchers in the decade since they began sharing international data on the Earth’s climate. This was the year they renewed their mandate and decided the next steps to help answer questions about climate change. How did you get the opportunity to cover the conference?

It came about last-minute. I’ve done those things before, but each time [laughing] is exhausting, but in a really great way. First, I love traveling anyway, that’s one of the reasons to be a journalist, to get someone to pay for you to go somewhere you’d like to go.

I had interviewed the head of the Group on Earth Observations for an article for Earthzine about a week and a half before this conference. I thought, “We should cover this.” I wrote my editor and laid out a plan: how I’d cover it, why it’s important to cover, and what I would do when I got there.

He agreed instantly that we should do it, but to come up with funding at the last minute was kind of crazy. I was amazed that it was so under-covered. I wanted to make the most of it. I slept a few hours each night, then made my way back over to the conference center.

You covered a lot of great material during that time. How much was planned before you started reporting versus serendipitous interactions?

I worked with people involved with GEO itself and Earthzine and one of the sponsoring organizations of Earthzine, IEEE [the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity]. Some people from IEEE were also helping out by setting up things for me. I got an email while I was in one session saying, “Do you have time to interview the director of UNEP?” That’s the United Nations Environment Program. I was like, “Are you kidding, of course!”

I wrote out questions before the interview. I didn’t want to waste his time. I quickly read up on what UNEP was doing, but the interview was focused on a new web platform, called UNEP Live. And he had his talking points down. It’s always helpful when people have things they want to tell you that you want to hear. With politicians, it’s a very different game. They have their talking points and you want to get them away from those talking points as quickly as possible.

When not skirting politicians skirting his questions, or wowing readers with insightful narratives, Osha also blogs about renewable energy and the environment in the Southwest at The Phoenix Sun. He’s also been known to tweet profound thoughts about the nuance of public policy.


(Meanwhile, I simply tweet triceratops cartoons and Noel Gallagher making fun of Oasis. You can’t be profound all the time.)

Thanks for reading, and check back soon for part 2!

{ Also }

July Talk, which a friend introduced to me saying, “You like Tom Waits, right?” Right. Good call.
Iggy Azalea, who is six months younger than me. I need to do more with my life.

Every bit of my life in a swank new apartment in the Capital City. Jefferson City, Missouri, that is.

“Nailing the Nut Graf” for The Open Notebook, and a lot a lot a lot of high school graduation letters. My MSA babies are morphing into beautiful college-bound butterflies!


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§ 4 Responses to { Q&A with Osha Gray Davidson, pt. 1: on covering wildfires, treating sources with respect, and pitching science stories to mainstream mags }

  • Love this!

    I’ve known Osha for a few years and am in awe of his passion and skills. It’s so helpful to let others see the process behind how and where published stories come from. It can seem quite mysterious!

    • Thanks, Caitlin! I loved this story and am fascinated by Osha’s career. This was definitely one of those phone conversations that leaves you feeling high on life for a few days. 🙂 I think I actually found your blog through a link he tweeted, not to spoil the magic of random internet encounters.

  • Awesome Q&A. Pulled out a few tidbits to hopefully help me along my way! Thank you for the posting!

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