Effort, obsession pay off for student journalism award winner

Chris McCrory won the Ray Reece “Excellence in Environmental Journalism” Student Award at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Fort Collins, Colorado, for reporting on abandoned mines in Arizona. Photo Credit: Andrew Blok

By Andrew Blok

Sometimes the path to award-winning journalism strays near abandoned mine shafts and expulsion from school.

That’s the route Chris McCrory took. McCrory won this year’s Ray Reece “Excellence in Environmental Journalism” student award at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Fort Collins, Colorado. His reporting took him too close to unstable, abandoned mines for his school’s comfort.

“I don’t know whether I regret it or not, because there was definitely a safety component that we weren’t really looking at but also I think it really emphasized, for me, the dangers of these mines,” he said.

McCrory’s two-part story produced for Cronkite News of Arizona PBS closely looked at Arizona’s 100,000 abandoned mines and the overtaxed and under-funded state officials charged with monitoring them. The idea came from a survey of government documents and a brief mention of the funding plight of the two government officials tasked with overseeing the mines.

From there it was five months of work that involved at least a dozen other student journalists who shot supporting photos and videos. McCrory traveled over 1,000 miles.

“I went from one corner of Arizona to the opposite corner,” he said.

Across the state he found that most of Arizona’s abandoned mines were unmapped and unprotected, presenting a danger for hikers, ATV riders and treasure hunters.

He told the story of a 60-year old man who fell 100 feet down an abandoned mine shaft while looking for left-behind gold. He had to kill three rattlesnakes before being rescued three days later.

Not every tragedy is avoided. When two young girls fell into a mine in 2007 shaft while riding ATVs, one was killed and the other severely injured.

The mines’ dangerous nature was central to his reporting experience. The Cronkite School of Journalism worried his reporting endangered him and fellow students. (After he graduated, friends told him, “You actually really came close to getting expelled over that.”)

The state wouldn’t give him the locations of the mines, fearing the public would flock to the exciting, but potentially deadly sites. Although he stopped looking for the location data, the real danger motivated him to report out the story, despite the reticence of some state officials. It pushed him to other modes of investigation.

“It was really the start of my prolific public records requests that I do a lot now because I realized how useful they were during this,” McCrory said.

All the hard work has paid off.

McCrory today works as a digital reporter for WWL-TV in New Orleans. His award from the Society of Environmental Journalists comes on the heels of winning the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence.

It’s vindicating to be recognized for work that looked like an obsession at times, he said.

Chris McCrory has a match tattooed on his forearm to remind him of the power of knowledge. He’ll light the match when his journalism creates a positive change in the world. Credit: Andrew Blok

McCrory is still hoping for a second payoff: seeing his journalism have an impact on the ground.

Although he hasn’t heard if Arizona has funded its abandoned mines program or mapped and fenced off significantly more of them since the stories ran, McCrory is still pursuing the story that makes a real, positive change for someone. It’s the reason for an unlit match tattooed on his left forearm. He’ll add to the tattoo when his reporting has real-world impact.

“If I get a story that makes some kind of significant change—I’m still waiting, but maybe it could be this one—I’ll light it,” he said.

It’s that pursuit of illuminating truth that the Society of Environmental Journalists called a “public service to residents and visitors and a call to action for legislators” and recognized in awarding this prize.

You can read his award winning stories here.

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