“Nothing feels better than when your story holds up under scrutiny.”
Awards are great, but Jason Dearen is most proud of the time his writing got a man out of jail. In 2005, Dearen published a series of articles for the Oakland Tribune investigating the case of Matthew Deger, a schizophrenic patient caught in a year-long holding pattern in the San Mateo County Jail — despite not having been convicted of a crime. After reading Dearen’s articles, Superior Court Judge Mark Forcum released Deger and sent him to a state hospital for treatment.
“That felt good,” Dearen says, “and his family was really thankful.”
It wasn’t the last time Dearen’s pen would serve as an instrument of change. His 2009 story on mercury contamination from abandoned mines in central California resulted in the EPA adding the New Idria Mercury Mine to the superfund list. His 2013 investigation into fracking off the coast of California prompted the EPA to institute new reporting requirements for offshore fracking in California.
“Nothing feels better than when your story holds up under scrutiny,” Dearen said. “It holds up, and it changes things.”
Much of Dearen’s reporting has centered on the environment, an interest he traces back to his days growing up surfing in L.A. in the 1980s. He’d often take the bus to the beach, his surfboard in tow. In those days of lax regulation, he recalls, the water was frequently contaminated. On bad days, the air was beige soup. Most days you couldn’t see the mountains surrounding the city.
“I felt disgusted that these things I liked to do––be outside and be in the water––were being hampered by industry,” he said.
After finishing high school, Dearen went to San Francisco State University, where he worked as a clerk at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The first in his family to go to college, he graduated and joined internet startup Yack.com as a content developer. But when the dot-com boom went belly up in the early 2000s, he applied to Columbia University and moved to NYC to pursue a master’s in journalism.
Most recently, Dearen has worked as a Florida-based correspondent at the Associated Press. He says the last two years there have been intense: He reported on the sinking of El Faro, the inundation of toxic waste sites during two hurricanes, the Parkland shooting, the shooting at Pulse night club, and executions. “That was a lot of death and destruction,” he said.
In Cambridge, Dearen is looking forward to having a break from the chaos. During his time as a Knight Science Journalism fellow, he’ll work on a longform narrative: a medical mystery about a lethal fungal outbreak among patients who had been injected with contaminated pain drugs. His story will take readers inside the process of how doctors and scientists uncovered the outbreak.
When he’s not writing, Dearen plays guitar. He was in a San Francisco punk band called the Young Offenders, which called it quits in 2012. As he sees it, both songwriting and journalism are a storytelling process. “You’re either using words or music to tell a story and try to bring people along with you on a journey,” Dearen says.
This is the first in a series of profiles of the 2018-19 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.