This feature is part of an occasional series showcasing alumni of the Chips Quinn Scholars Program. The features were prepared by Chipsters in the 2019 class, who were asked to talk with an alum of their choosing. The following piece has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q&A: Talia Buford
by Zoë Jackson
Talia Buford covers disparities in environmental impacts for ProPublica. Previously she was an environment and labor reporter at The Center for Public Integrity, focusing mostly on wage theft and the Environmental Protection Agency’s lackluster enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. She also covered energy for Politico Pro and started her career at The Providence (R.I.) Journal, where she covered municipal and legal affairs. Buford earned a master’s degree in the study of law from Georgetown University Law Center and a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Hampton University. She was a 2004 Chips Quinn Scholar at the Press & Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, N.Y.)
What does your role as an environmental justice reporter entail?
Buford: I cover the way the environment has an impact on communities and people – specifically people of color, low-income communities and other historically marginalized groups. It’s a lens that’s become more common over time but essentially is focusing on the people who bear the brunt of the effects of our changing world.
How did you get into covering the environment?
I fell into covering the environment. I started my career as a metro reporter at The Providence Journal and had begun to specialize in legal reporting. I went to grad school to get a master’s to help my reporting and started looking for jobs in D.C. This was in 2011, and local papers there were shrinking their court coverage, so I expanded (the definition of) what I considered to be the law and legal journalism, first to lobbying (influencing laws) and then to policy (the laws themselves). I ended up getting a job at Politico Pro covering energy policy. I remember sitting in the interview, explaining that even though I had never covered the environment or energy before, I was a metro reporter at heart. So if they gave me time, I could learn and report on anything. I ended up covering natural gas and fracking for three years there. I moved on to the Center for Public Integrity because I wanted to get back to speaking to everyday people instead of politicians. At CPI, I discovered that I could focus on the section of the environment that I was most drawn to – the people – by reporting on environmental justice.
As a native of Flint, Mich., was the water crisis a driving factor in your becoming an environmental reporter?
I was working on my first major investigation with a colleague at CPI when the Flint water crisis emerged as national news. It just so happened that the investigation we were doing was about the EPA’s lackluster enforcement of federal civil rights law, which dovetailed a bit with the situation in Flint. I didn’t report on the crisis directly at the time, though we wrote about a previous civil rights case that had been pending for years in Flint. I also wrote a commentary piece for The Washington Post, reflecting on what it was like as an environmental reporter to watch a national story unfold in your hometown.
What’s something people get wrong about Flint?
I think for a long time people have looked at Flint as this horrible place to be from, but it’s not. Even before the water crisis, Flint’s reputation as a hard and dangerous city preceded it. Yes, there was crime, but growing up, it didn’t feel like any more than you’d experience in any other city. I’m proud to be from Flint – and I’m pretty sure that is true for most Flintstones.
Do you have any self-care tips for journalists? How do you detox from the 24-hour news cycle?
My first job at the ProJo was a Guild position, and I established some habits that helped me once I moved into the world of startups and digital publications. I take a lunch. I try to delineate clear work and life boundaries. I come into the office pretty much every workday. For me, it’s a signal that this is where you do work so that the stress of a deadline isn’t meeting me on my couch when I’m trying to get into a Netflix binge. (Though I do have a desk at home and will work on nights or weekends if the story requires.) When I’m on deadline and pulling a long day-night on a story, I try to force myself to go to yoga or to dinner with someone, or do something for myself. It’s easy to think that you can’t afford to take that hour away from your story, but often you can. And you’ll be more rested or fueled for the long night ahead if you take that break. I also read a lot of fiction, since I mostly consume news all day at work.
Zoë Jackson (2019), a senior at Western Michigan University, was a reporting intern at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis last summer.