Dawn of the wolf patrol: How I got the story
Editor’s note: Michigan State University student Holly Drankhan recently landed an interview with a convicted arsonist and bombmaker for the Knight Center’s Great Lakes Echo.
Rod Coronado in 1992 burned down an MSU laboratory, destroying 32 years of animal research.
Subsequently the animal rights activist spent two years on the lam before serving a 57-month prison sentence. He told Drankhan that he now is a law-abiding advocate for Great Lakes wolves.
Drankhan, 22, of Clarkston, Michigan, took an environmental reporting class at the Knight Center before graduating with a degree in zoology last June. She continued to freelance for Great Lakes Echo through the summer and will enter the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine this fall.
The Knight Center asked her how she developed the story about the controversial activist. Here’s the scoop:
Knight Center: How did you get the idea for this story?
Holly Drankhan: I came across the idea as I was looking into writing a story on a documentary or film about the Great Lakes region. I have always enjoyed Echo stories that combine nature and art. I happened across the Great Lakes Environmental Film Festival that was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, this spring. The festival’s director, Joe Brown, was showcasing his documentary of Rod Coronado. When I read that name, my mind sprung to the disapproving faces of my MSU animal science professors as they discussed Coronado’s bombing of Anthony Hall in the 1990’s. Right then, I knew I had to pursue the story. This was reinforced when Brown told me that Coronado lived only a few miles away in Grand Rapids.
KC: How did you get an interview with Coronado? Were you surprised he gave one?
HD: I was stunned. Only two hours after I had interviewed Brown and asked if he could pass along my contact information to Coronado, I received a phone call from the activist. Brown said that it took him a few months to gain Coronado’s trust, which made me even more grateful for the quick response. Although Coronado knew my connection with MSU, this did not seem to inspire any reservations. We scheduled an in-person interview for that same week. Although I was fairly familiar with the Grand Rapids area, I wanted him to pick a location so that I could see him in his element. The setting and the ability to see his expressions really allowed me to add an element of personality to the story, which I think served it well.
KC: What is he like?
HD: The first adjective that comes to mind is soft-spoken. This quality was completely juxtaposed to my expectations for a convicted eco-terrorist and past leader of violent demonstrations. It made voice recording very difficult in a coffee shop full of clanking mugs and steaming expresso machines. He was also extremely passionate and spoke with conviction about his beliefs. I could see his age had grayed his hair and wrinkled his dark complexion, but I could also see it in the way he carried himself. He held a confident posture but not one of arrogance, and his cadence portrayed forethought and experience.
KC: Were you ever concerned that he was manipulating you to write a story that made him seem heroic or romantic?
HD: I did not feel as though he was manipulating me. He supplied answers that seemed honest and consistently supported a transformation in his personal philosophy, which I reported without alteration. I think that most interviewees will present themselves in an affirmative light, so it is up to the reporter to balance these self-perceptions with the opinions of others. While Coronado painted himself a hero in his early blog post about bombing whaling ships in Iceland, I did not sense this same self-perception in our interview.
KC: He built bombs and is a convicted arsonist. Were you concerned about your safety?
HD: Yes. It did not help that just hours before we met, I watched a “60 Minutes” interview with Coronado titled “Burning Rage.” In my paranoia, I texted multiple friends with the location and time of the interview just in case something went awry. Not thinking and in a hurry, I nearly wore an MSU shirt to the interview. My boyfriend reminded me that that was probably a terrible idea. Once Coronado and I were face-to-face, however, my concerns dissipated.
KC: What surprised you?
HD: I was surprised when Coronado said that he has never seen a live wolf in the wild, yet he was incredibly inspired to protect the animal. I was also surprised to learn of the opposition that Coronado received from his own side – that is other wolf advocates or animal rights groups. Many extreme groups have strict guidelines for the lifestyle, diet and language of their followers, Coronado said.
KC: Tell us about the editing process. How did that go?
HD: I was concerned when my first draft was 1,300 words that I would never be able to condense the information. Then Echo editors told me to expand even more. Needless to say, this story was a challenge. Digging up details of Coronado’s past arrests was not as simple as I anticipated, since the Internet is littered with biased reports. It was difficult to make the story well-balanced when it had an element of personal narrative. I found myself yearning to revert back to the descriptive story-telling I used as a yearbook writer but chastising myself if I started to slip from journalistic standards. Balancing details of Coronado’s past with his present activities was hard, and I think the editor’s decision to split the story into two was a wise one.
KC: Anything you wished that you asked him now?
HD: After going through the editing process, I realized that I should have asked Coronado more about his past, his time spent in jail and how he first became inspired to join the animal rights movement. I knew that Coronado believed he had made a big transformation in his life philosophy, and I was nervous to push too hard on the details of his past, thinking he would get angry or shut me out. As a consequence, however, I had to do a lot of research and consult outside sources rather than glean information from Coronado when I had him right in front of me.
KC: Did he get angry?
HD: No. His composure was very impressive. He seemed to anticipate the inevitable shift in conversation from the wolf patrol to his past radical acts. He also did not exhibit anger toward hunters, even though some have sent him threatening messages.
KC: How did you prepare for the interview?
HD: I just started with a Google search. Coronado has a pretty extensive criminal history, so I tried to find more details about each event. I went to sources I thought were more reputable, like the New York Times. I also looked at some previous video and transcribed interviews so I could compare his responses and see if his personal philosophy really seemed to change. I also watched a lot of the videos from the wolf patrol’s YouTube channel so I could get a sense of how their interactions with hunters went. I think that interviewing another source for the story before Coronado was also helpful, because it helped give me context and a little more on his personality from someone who interacted with him frequently.
KC: Did you write your questions out beforehand?
HD: Yes. I always like to go in with some questions outlined, although I usually just follow the conversation where it leads. From my experience as a yearbook editor, I saw too many writers use their questions as a crutch and it made interviewing very awkward and impersonal. Once I have an interviewee opened up, they usually reveal an amazing detail or thought that I never could have anticipated beforehand. This is the juicy stuff that you really have to dig into with spontaneous questioning.
KC: Did you use note cards?
HD: Just a reporter’s notebook with some questions. I always star the two or three questions that I think are the most vital for me to ask, that way they are easier to find when I am flipping through the pages. Sometimes I number my questions after I have them all written down so I have a more logical flow for my line of inquiry.
KC: Did you record the interview?
HD: Yes, I always like to use a voice recorder. You can get a free app for your phone as well. I always like to use the recorder, because I don’t have to be so concerned with jotting down every little detail and I can instead make more eye contact. Even for over-the-phone interviews, I will put the source on speaker phone and record the conversation. Sometimes people get a little more nervous with the recorder on, but I think they come to realize that the increase in accuracy is really for their benefit. Then I know that if I am unsure on a detail, I can go back and check on the exact facts and figures when I transcribe the interview. I also have a backup in case a source tries to contradict themselves after the story is written.
KC: Did you tell him you are a vet student?
HD: No. He did not ask me, and I did not feel it was relevant to our discussion. He knew that I was an East Lansing resident, however, and invited me to join wolf patrol members as they periodically sat in on legislative discussions at the state capitol.
KC: As a vet student you must like animals and have a concern for their welfare. Was it difficult to separate your feelings from your perception of Coronado and your fair reporting of the story?
HD: Actually, I believe that the qualities necessary to become a veterinarian helped me stay fair in my reporting. While you are always compassionate and concerned for the welfare of animals, you must retain cognizant control over your emotions to deliver a difficult prognosis or euthanize an animal when appropriate. You are also taught to be mindful of others’ perceptions of animals and how they may differ from your own, whether these views be founded in religion, geographic location or tradition. Veterinarians have vital roles in animal research, animal production and wildlife management, and these require an acceptance of multiple humane and well-regulated uses for animals beyond companionship.
Read the story.
Editor’s note: This story updated July 23, 2015, to add responses to additional questions.