Ian Urbina’s magisterial probe in The New York Times of OSHA’s failure to police long-term health risks—like harmful fumes caused by glue used in furniture plants—is without doubt a great example of agenda-setting public-interest reporting of a kind that, sad to say, is becoming increasingly scarce among mainstream business news outlets.
The 5,400 word piece—yet another example of the indispensability of longform newspaper writing that itself is becoming an endangered species—explores how and why the furniture industry increasingly uses a chemical known as nPB despite warnings about its consequences for workers from no less an authority than the chemical companies that used to manufacturer it.
The story is smart to point out that OSHA devotes most of its resources to headline-grabbing accidents when toxic workplace air incapacitates 200,000 workers a year and, as the story explains, more than 40,000 Americans a year die prematurely from exposure to toxic substances at work—10 times as many as those who die from refinery explosions, mine collapses, and other accidents.
A few things about the story stand out:
1. The target. OSHA is part of the shadow Washington, the permanent government of regulatory agencies that are vastly under-covered given their importance, the abundance of stories to be found among them, and the number of journalists working in the capital. If only a small fraction of the 15,000 journalists who covered the Republic convention, for instance, could be diverted to the agencies, the news would be vastly more interesting, not to mention useful. The Times, to paraphrase, Willie Keeler, is going where they ain’t, and to great effect.
2. The people. The anecdotes are understated and all the more compelling, and heartbreaking, for that. We’re told, for instance, that Sheri Farley, a 45-year-old worker stricken with “dead foot” from nerve damage, can’t stand the vibration that her kids make playing in the trailer where they live. One of the poorly understood attributes of great journalism is that it can connect segments of society that normally have nothing to do with each other, in this case, the Times elite audience with the working poor of North Carolina. The story reminded me of of how infrequently I read quotes from someone who doesn’t have a college degree.
3. The documents. Here’s where interactivity really strengthens a story. This OSHA-required log of work-related injuries shows a long list of incidences of “alleged neurological injury” that the company itself had to record over and over.
And so on.
The flaw in the story is its framing. In a long story like this, it’s necessary to explain what it’s all about, usually with a phrase that begins, “This story shows …”