About three weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine released a profile about a corporate defense attorney named Rob Bilott. The story starts its focus around a West Virginia suburb, where hazardous waste from a chemical plant damaged the livestock in a nearby farm. The farmer, a family friend of Bilott, sought out legal action against the plant’s owner, a large corporation called DuPont, allowing Bilott to become the unlikely hero. I will look at the research steps reporter Nathaniel Rich took in developing the story:

  1. Scrub

While the story profiles Bilott, it also serves as an exposé of DuPont and its history of polluting the earth with toxic chemicals. Accordingly, Rich had to begin his research by doing a scrub of stories related to DuPont’s legal issues. Looking back at the last decade or so, Rich discovered Bilott’s initial lawsuit against DuPont in 2000 representing the West Virginia farmer. The scrub would take Rich all the way from then to October, 2015, when Reuters reported a successful lawsuit against DuPont worth over a million dollars. DuPont found other stories on the issue, including from The Intercept and The Huffington Post, as seen below.

A screenshot of the further reading Rich suggests in a sidebar.

Another important secondary source Rich found was a joint study between Harvard and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell from last June; the study shows that the same chemical DuPont had released in water supplies for nearly half a century was also present, in unsafe amounts, in water systems in 27 states in the country. Part of the chart Rich created from the study is seen below.

A screenshot of part of the chart Rich uses.

2. Primary Sources

Given the amount of court and bureaucracy action in the story, there were many public documents that Rich could use for research:

  • Environmental Protection Agency records: Past studies, warnings, statements, and lawsuits from the Agency are public information, which Rich used for his timeline. One example was a study the EPA had done on the farmer’s land indicating DuPont had no impact on the livestock’s downfall, which Rich would later learn was a cover-up by DuPont.
  • Lawsuits: There were several lawsuits, meaning several sets of documents Rich could search through for material. One was the initial lawsuit between the farmer and DuPont in 2000. Another came in 2005 between DuPont and the EPA, where Bilott’s findings forced DuPont to settle for $16.5 million. The last lawsuit was a class-action lawsuit between over 3,000 plaintiffs and DuPont that began last Fall and may continue for years to come.

3. Interviews

Up to this point, Rich’s sources indicate DuPont’s legal issues for at least a decade and that the corporation is still in under attack. Yet those alone don’t provide him with a unique angle to do a story. This is where Rob Bilott fits in. Bilott, as Rich learns, works for a legal firm that has made its name defending large corporations, including DuPont. So why does his name show up in lawsuits on the side suing DuPont? Rich’s research led him to discover Bilott’s relationship with the farmer in West Virginia, which truly began the current takedown of DuPont and led to heightened awareness around the world of what chemicals companies are littering into the environment. Bilott’s conflict of interests is what establishes him as a hero and drives the story’s narrative. But unless Rich had pursued Bilott as a source, it would be much harder for readers to appreciate the lawyer’s feat. Here‘s a list of the main interviews from the article and their contributions:

  • Rob Bilott. This allowed Rich to acquire important details such as Bilott’s family history, life growing up, and how he became a lawyer. Bilott also told the farmer’s story, as he had passed away before Rich could talk to him.
  • Bilott’s wife, Sarah. She talked to Rich about Bilott’s determined character, and how stressful of a process it was for him even at home. This helped show Bilott’s dedication and passion in fighting the case.
  • Bilott’s co-workers. Including multiple lawyers who worked Bilott at one point or another, these sources talked about Bilott’s actions in the context of the industry, which help underline how bold of a lawyer he is.
  • DuPont/corporate representatives. Although no one from DuPont speaks as extensively in the article as the other sources, it’s important that Rich sought out the other side of the issue to remain a balanced storyteller. DuPont is currently rebuilding its image, partially by using a replacement chemical formula that it says is less harmful to people and the environment.