“I tried to approach the investigation in a forensic manner, door-knocking every home on the five-kilometre stretch and tracking down as many former residents as I could.” The shoe-leather reporting that took a young regional reporter to the Walkley stage.

Gemma Courtney
Oct 18, 2018 · 6 min read
Carrie Fellner at the 2017 Walkley Awards. Photo: Adam Hollingworth.

Community/Regional category winner, 2017 Walkley Awards

Carrie Fellner, Newcastle Herald, “The sorrow on Cabbage Tree Road” “Profiles: the 50 cancer cases of Cabbage Tree Road; Rare cancer strikes twice in the red zone

The Newcastle Herald had been reporting for two years on the impact of toxic chemicals in firefighting foam that escaped from Williamtown RAAF base, polluting surrounding properties, when Carrie Fellner took the initiative to dig into the health effects of the spill. Her stories were built on classic shoe-leather reporting. The Walkley judges described her entry as “a tenacious and powerful investigative piece driven by an energetic reporter who suspected something was wrong, then set about proving it.”

How did you get started on this story?

When this investigation began, I had already been reporting on the fallout of per- and poly-fluoralkyl (PFAS) contamination around the Williamtown RAAF base for 18 months. The story, about toxic firefighting chemicals, followed me from my role as a radio newsreader in Newcastle to my new gig as a print journalist with the Newcastle Herald.

People living in the “red zone” had experienced a unique form of trauma — I doubt many Australians could imagine waking up to find your home’s value decimated, you no longer have the ability to obtain a bank loan and have a chemical running through your blood linked with serious health conditions like kidney cancer.

I stood with residents at Defence’s very first public meeting — all of us bewildered by the situation — and subsequently spent many months on the phone with and at the homes of those affected. Admittedly we came to share a closer bond than the conventional journalist-source relationship: I became a confidant and a conduit for information for the community. When a resident mentioned to me she felt there was a “tremendous” amount of cancer on her street — Cabbage Tree Road — I felt it warranted further investigation.

Up until that point, any mention of cancer had seemed taboo, even though there was mounting scientific evidence of health effects from PFAS emerging from the United States. I knew a cancer cluster story would be controversial — and damaging for authorities trying to downplay the situation — but I felt that my role was to assemble the facts so people could make up their own minds.

I tried to approach the investigation in a forensic manner, door-knocking every home on the five-kilometre stretch and tracking down as many former residents as I could. This posed some difficulty working for a regional publication where all the journalists were under the pump — there was no way we could justify sending someone on the road for six months! I ended up making up the hours in my own time.

Another challenge was when a private laboratory refused to perform water testing for us because of contracts it held with the Department of Defence. Fortunately I was able to find another laboratory in Newcastle, which was well worth it when we found contaminants in a drain at levels 34 times higher than those reported by authorities.

What impact did the story have?

At the time of publication, I had amassed 24 cancer cases from the road. I was inundated afterwards and within weeks the tally had soared to 50. Many of the residents had no idea about the extent of the cancer toll in their neighbourhood and were grateful to our masthead for devoting the time and energy towards bringing it to light.

In a broader sense, up until our series was published, I had frustrations around how the scandal was playing out. Residents were languishing on toxic and unsaleable properties while the general public, and the national media, were largely unaware of their plight. Politicians were making blanket statements about there being no health risks from the chemicals, while at the same time enforcing fishing bans and preventing residents from drinking their water or eating their homegrown produce. I knew there was mounting scientific evidence to the contrary, and as it turned out, disturbing primary evidence from the contaminated zones. Through our series, we were able to shine a spotlight on this evidence, challenge the official narrative from authorities and create national awareness of the issue for the first time.

What have you learned from reporting on community/regional issues?

While some journalists snag a job in a capital city straight out of university, I am really grateful for the years I spent in regional New South Wales. When you have sole responsibility for filing a daily news bulletin in a town of 10,000 people you quickly learn how to scrounge for leads and find stories in unusual places. It’s a special kind of panic! Working regionally also teaches you work ethic, how to build contacts, the importance of treating people ethically and the value you can contribute to the community through your work.

In regional areas — with the limited number of media players — your journalism plays a more vital democratic role than ever. I have no doubt that if not for the work of Newcastle Herald investigative journalists like Joanne McCarthy and Donna Page, there would be stories of institutional abuse and corruption that would go untold.

Living alongside the people you write about, you feel and see the effect of these stories on people’s lives — which is incredibly gratifying. It is tragic to think the ongoing contraction of the industry could leave regional areas totally unserviced by public service journalism.

What made you want to be a journalist?

Growing up I was a bit of a tabloid news junkie. I wanted to be a journalist out in the field, reporting from crime scenes and natural disaster zones. While I would never diminish the value of breaking news journalism, gradually throughout my career I came to understand journalism’s other functions: to educate, act as a watchdog, give voice to the powerless and expose institutional failings. While every journalist loves to break a story or see their byline on the front page, I realised that fulfilling those functions was where I wanted to focus my energies.

What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?

I know the public understands the value of investigative journalism because we are overwhelmed by the response when we do journalism that matters. But I don’t think there’s as much awareness of why people need to pay for the news they read, as seen by backlash when a news website puts up a paywall. As social media giants soak up advertising revenue, but fail to fund our reporting, it’s left media outlets dependent on subscribers to survive. Investigations are time-consuming and expensive, especially in comparison to clickbait, and they are hard to justify if margins are tight. The only way this type of journalism will continue to be done is with the public’s support.

Tell us the best thing about receiving this award?

Fairfax Media’s campaign for the contamination victims has been an uphill, three-year battle and it’s not over. The award was such a shot in the arm for me because I felt that my industry peers and the journalists I admired understood what our masthead was fighting for, and were behind us in that battle. There’s always a healthy rivalry between outlets, but what stood out to me at the ceremony was the common thread to the work that we do. It was a great bonus to be offered a fulltime job in investigations at The Sydney Morning Herald. Recently I’ve been writing about the insurance industry but no doubt will make time to visit some of the city’s toxic waste dumps!

Carrie Fellner started her career in broadcast journalism after graduating from UTS in 2010. Her first reporting job was with a commercial radio station in Lithgow. Carrie joined the Newcastle Herald in 2016 and was part of the Herald team that won a Walkley in 2017. She was also a joint winner at the 2017 Walkley Young Australian Journalist of the Year Awards. Carrie now works in the investigations team at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Follow her on Twitter: @carriefellner

See all the winners of the 2017 Walkley Awards here.

*Interview by Gemma Courtney, The Walkley Foundation

The Walkley Award for Coverage of Community/Regional Affairs is supported by BHP.

The Walkley Magazine

Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.

Gemma Courtney

Written by

The Walkley Magazine

Inside the Australia and New Zealand media – stories by and for journalists.

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