Sexual harassment, retaliation, buckets of uranium ore … It sounds like the makings of an action-packed thriller, but in reality it describes some of what’s been going on inside Grand Canyon National Park the last few years. Flagstaff journalist and author Annette McGivney recently published a story about it all in Outside magazine. In it she links decades of employee tension, management disfunction, a federal investigation, and the ousting of a Grand Canyon superintendent. She spoke with KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius about the article and the difficulties of going after a story with anonymous sources.
Ryan Heinsius: This is a fairly complex story, but I’m wondering if you can briefly sum it up for me.
Annette McGivney: The story kind of was kind of a spin-off from a story I investigated earlier the previous year about Chris Lehnertz taking over a superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park and the new approach she had to management, which was kind of a compassionate, trauma-informed management style, which had never, never been anything close to that before at Grand Canyon. And that story came out but then she was suddenly reassigned when she was being investigated for unspecified allegations against her, and that happened last October 2018. And so, I really started paying attention very closely at that point thinking, “What is going on?” And then in February the report came out that all the allegations were baseless, and then right around that same time the whole thing with uranium being discovered at the museum and it was this big scandal happened at the same time and I thought, “Things are really not adding up here.” And so I started paying really close attention and investigating it and I talked to Outside magazine. I said I’m looking into this and they’re like, “Great, keep digging.”
RH: How did you go about maintaining the necessary credibility for a story like this while using sources that you can’t name in the story?
AM: I’m a journalism professor also and so I always tell my students, using anonymous sources has got to be really justified. Like, it’s sort of a last resort situation with reporting. You really want people to go on the record because the public deserves to know who’s talking and where the information came from, but if no one will go on the record and the journalist feels there’s important information that the public needs to know about, and it’s in the public interest that this story comes out and the only way to do it is through anonymous sources, then that’s justified. I don’t want to do stories that are so full of anonymous sources, so that was not my ideal reporting experience. And so I feel like the danger with anonymous sources is if they’re not going on record—and I’m not questioning my sources, but in general anonymous sources, it kind of gives them the freedom to potentially not be as accountable. And so that’s scary as a journalist because you’ve got to make sure what they’re telling you—even though they don’t have to be accountable for it, you have to be accountable. My own person rule is I corroborate with two other sources. So I would corroborate what they told me with like one other anonymous source and then a document, like an email or something. I’d be like, OK, I’ve got three points of contact here, and I feel safe with this. And then, the fact-checking process that I went through with Outside was so incredibly rigorous. We spent over a month I think fact-checking this.
RH: Generally, what were the reasons given to not go on the record, to remain anonymous?
AM: Usually, it’s because in a workplace people are afraid of losing their job, like they don’t have permission to speak. So that was definitely the case at Grand Canyon. Added to that is a lot of paranoia at Grand Canyon. And the very thing that Chris Lehnertz was trying to tamp down or get rid of—that fearful, hostile working environment is not only what impacted her in the end but also impacted the ability of people to speak freely for a story.
RH: Since this story had come out, what’s been the reaction?
AM: So far, I’ve only gotten positive reactions. Since I’m here in town and there’s a lot of Grand Canyon employees, I’ve definitely had people come up to me in the street and thank me for doing this story; and send me emails thanking me for doing this story; and saying they felt like maybe there was a glimmer of hope that at least some of what they’re experiencing has been put out in the daylight now.
The article is called "Uranium Scare Exposes Grand Canyon's Toxic Work Culture." KNAU contacted Christine Lehnertz and the National Park Service for comment on the article. Both declined.