By Jazzlyn Johnson
University of Montana School of Journalism Student
In 2009, when University of Montana journalism and law students started covering the criminal trial of the chemical company W.R. Grace, many of them did not realize how cutting edge their reporting would be.
In the lawsuit, the federal government alleged that Grace knew asbestos from its vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana was making people in the small town sick, and that executives covered it up.
It was a national story, but the trial took place just across the river from UM, walking distance from campus. It was also about the time that social media started really changing the way news is gathered and disseminated. Students took advantage of both of those things to cover one of the biggest environmental stories in recent history, and do it in new ways.
This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Grace Case Project, which brought together students from the School of Journalism and the School of Law to cover U.S. v. W.R. Grace.
Last week, three of the students, Chris D’Angelo, Laura Lundquist and Katy Furlong, came together for the School of Journalism’s homecoming alumni roundtable, to share their experiences and talk about how it added to their careers.
Journalism professor Nadia White, who taught the Grace Case Project class, relayed stories of W.R. Grace miners coming home after work covered in dust that contained life-threatening asbestos, which would then be released to the rest of their family. She said the asbestos was also in the bark of trees and in piles around town and on playgrounds.
There were also expansion plants all over the nation where people had no idea they were working in old plants that contained asbestos, White said.
Although the mine closed in 1990, White said the waste persisted and has had lasting effects.
The 10-week case, which took place in U.S. District Court in Missoula, resulted in the company’s acquittal.
“We were trying to be objective, but it we felt for the people of Libby,” said Lundquist who is now an environmental reporter for the Missoula Current.
Furlong was one of the law students tasked with explaining the legal strategies from the courtroom in a way that was easy for readers to understand.
Because Furlong and the other law students were used to writing for the courts and not the public, they had a chance for their writing to be read by more people.
“Lawyers forget their audience is the jury,” said Furlong. She said she noticed the jury not paying attention to the elaborate and boring documents the lawyers put in front of them. “That didn’t do (the lawyers) any favors.”
“I don’t think there’s been a trial quite like that in Missoula,” said Beth Brennan, who taught legal writing at the School of Law and worked with students on the Grace Case Project.
The students’ coverage gained national media attention from publications like the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal and brought thousands of viewers to their website.
Every day of the trial, the journalism and law students went to the courthouse to write recaps and live tweet the trial.
Brennan said originally, reporters were not normally allowed to use technology like laptops and phones in the courtroom since there were concerns about noise and disruption. They requested permission from U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy and were eventually granted permission to tweet and use their laptops inside the courtroom.
White said by the end of the trial, the students had 14,000 tweets on their Grace Case Project account, which got the attention of Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, who was curious about what they were using Twitter for.
“I still find myself using Twitter the same way I did in this class,” said D’Angelo, who was a student reporter for the Grace Case Project in 2009 and is now an environmental reporter for the Huffington Post.
He said the class helped him and other students to grow a thick skin and learn their own styles.
“This class is the reason I’m doing what I’m doing and stuck with environmental journalism,” D’Angelo said.