Juliet Eilperin ’92 is a senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post and a former Managing Editor of The Daily Princetonian. Three weeks ago, Eilperin and several of her colleagues at The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for “2º C: Beyond The Limit,” a project which explored areas of the planet that have experienced above-average global warming.
The ‘Prince’ spoke with Eilperin on Monday about her work reporting on climate change and the impact that being a college journalist has had on her career.
The Daily Princetonian: You and your colleagues won a Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for your project “2C: Beyond the Limit,” which explored areas of the planet that have experienced above-average global warming. How did you react when you heard that you had won the prize?
Juliet Eilperin: We were all thrilled. We got on a group call, because obviously, as you can imagine, we weren't all together. And it was sort of funny because we just, you know, we're doing calls on our cell phone and merging in one member of the team after another. But it was an excellent moment, the kind of thing you would always hope for, so it was terrific to be able to share it with our colleagues, even if we were all apart physically.
DP: According to The Washington Post, the 2ºC project involved tracking nearly 170 years of temperature records to map every place that has already warmed by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — the threshold international negotiators hope the planet as a whole will never reach — and then dispatching reporters to those areas. You were sent to Alaska. Could you discuss your experience?
JE: It was a fascinating trip that entailed pretty unusual travel to get to a relatively remote part of the United States. And in order to do that, my colleague, Bonnie Jo Mount, who’s an incredibly talented photographer, and I had to fly first to Alaska itself, to Anchorage, then up north to Deadhorse, which is one of the furthest spots that a medium-sized commercial plane would fly. Then we had hired a small plane, a Cessna, to take us to the shore of Teshekpuk Lake — the lake that's made out of melted permafrost and was one of the areas that I was studying. So even the journey there was quite the experience. I got stuck in the back where they kept the luggage. The plane was a two-seater, and we decided that all three of us — the pilot, Bonnie Jo, and I — would go together because the weather can change so quickly and so we wanted to see if we could get out there in one go of it. I spent a few nights with Bonnie Jo, and a couple of other photographers who were on the trip, and the guide, camping out by the lake where we were able to see really incredible wildlife, including some of the birds that migrate to its shores, right when it's starting to melt.
This was in late May, that we journeyed there, of 2019. We watched the pregnant caribou all move in tandem to go also seek refuge there. We watched them from a distance, because you couldn't get close to them, but you could still see them if you were, you know, relatively quiet and stayed put. We also walked the tundra. There was a snowstorm while we were there. So part of the time we had great weather, part of the time we did not, and we in fact did get stuck for a day because of that. After that, we journeyed again in the Cessna to Nuiqsut, which is a village of less than 500 people. What's interesting is that the town of Nuiqsut became really the heart of the story, which is not something I was positive about before leaving. But that's one of the things that happens with reporting, that you have to be open to your story changing and have a good enough idea that you can gather material, but also pay attention to what you learn along the way.
So it's the kind of place where the minute you arrive, everybody knows you've come there, and they know you're not from around there. We really spent time walking the town, walking the streets, talking to folks, explaining what we were doing, and learning about their lives. That was an incredible part of the journey for me to get to have people who were living a very different life from mine talk about what it's like there, how things have changed even from when this area was resettled, which is actually right around the time I was born. So it was really interesting to learn about the way climate change, and a host of other factors, had transformed this village over the course of my lifetime.
DP: You once mentioned that writing this article gave you insight into the complexities and nuances involved in the situation of Alaskan towns. How do you see the role of journalism in reporting on this nuance as contributing to the broader discussion on climate?
JE: One of the things I feel strongly about is that our job as responsible journalists is to convey the costs and benefits of anything we’re writing about and give the fullest picture possible so that readers can make up their own mind about whatever subjects we happen to pick for a given story. I really wanted people, upon reading this story, to both see the real impact that climate change has had on Alaska’s North Slope, and the people who lived there, particularly Alaskan natives, who, after all, were there before other folks in the state and who have depended on subsistence hunting for millennia, but also the benefits that energy exploration has brought to this area. I think you're not doing justice to this topic without showing that complexity. And in fact, having your readers reflect on the fact that we all use fossil fuels and it's not as if any of us are fully divorced from the complicated dynamic that drives climate change. So that's what I was trying to do in that story.
One thing that I would also say is that it also involved talking to the oil company that dominates this area, ConocoPhillips. And while ConocoPhillips wouldn't let me visit the oil fields on site, which is certainly something I had wanted to do, I did have an extended back-and-forth with folks in the company, as well as folks in the tribal corporation that helped develop oil there. I thought that was really important. It wouldn't have been as good a story if I didn't have a chance to talk to an array of different folks.
DP: During your university days, you served as a managing editor of The Daily Princetonian. Would you be able to discuss the impact your college newspaper experience has had on your future journalism?
JE: Working on The Daily Princetonian was seminal for me in my development as a journalist. I had been Features Editor of my high school paper, and that was fun, but I learned how to practice journalism from other students on the ‘Prince.’ I'm somewhat old-school in that I think journalism is a trade and you work at it and you hope to have really good editors that pass on their knowledge and work on your writing and that's the way you learn how to be a journalist.
And for me, I felt like the ‘Prince’ allowed me to both explore tons about campus life and investigate issues of the day. But I also thought it allowed me to learn the work that it takes to do journalism. Particularly once I had joined the board and was managing editor, I worked what was the equivalent of a full-time job while still going to school, and we laid out the paper under the guide of Larry DuPraz, rest in peace. So it gave me a sense of the sacrifices that would be required to do good journalism. I thought that that was really important, and I think, you know, there's a reason why the top four editors my year are still practicing journalism. We really loved it and came out of there wanting this to be our life's work.
DP: Is there anything else that you'd like to add?
JE: One of the things that I think I really learned on the ‘Prince’ is you walk around with a notebook and a pen, and it gives you entry into asking almost anybody whatever you want, obviously within some limits, and I'm kind of amazed that it still works. And of course, I worked at The Washington Post for over two decades, and I get to say that I work at The Washington Post, but I do really feel like I got a sense working on the college paper that if you could show up with this simple reporter’s notebook, which is still what I carry around with me, and a pen, it gives you a way to learn about other people's stories.
And that's something I am incredibly grateful for. I feel like it's almost an act of trust that you do every time. You begin interviewing someone, and it comes with a certain level of responsibility. I really do feel bad, especially when I'm writing about the lives of these people in Alaska or during the coronavirus outbreak. I'm calling people in small towns in places like Oklahoma or Kentucky or sometimes I'm talking to the governors of some of these places. And I take very seriously the fact that I ask people to share their time and their stories. What I like about journalism is that it's incredibly transparent, because at the end of the day, people see my work, they can tell me whether I've been fair. That's very important, and I think it lends an accountability element to journalism that you don't have with every single profession. That's one of my favorite parts about it. That at least if I'm asking a lot of other people, I'm showing them what I ended up doing in the end.