Sara Shipley Hiles is an award-winning journalist and journalism educator with 20 years’ experience in the field.
As a teacher, she challenges her students to think deeply and work creatively to create compelling projects across a variety of media platforms.
As a journalist, she specializes in stories that illuminate the relationship between people and the environment. She has traveled from Louisiana’s chemical corridor to the Douglas fir forests of the Northwest and the mining towns of Peru in her work.
Sara is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri.
Chasing Pigs and Mardi Gras Beads
Sara was born in Rochester, N.Y. and grew up in Marthasville, Mo. The second oldest of eight children, Sara spent her younger days on the family hog farm, chasing pigs and doing chores. She attended St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington, Mo., where she played the clarinet in the marching band and worked on the school paper and yearbook using the original “cut and paste” technology.
Sara received her bachelor’s degree in communications at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1993. She was a Presidential Scholar in the honors program, a writer at the award-winning paper, The Maroon, and an enthusiastic fan of Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras.
Although Sara arrived on campus aspiring to be a TV producer for “Sesame Street,” she quickly developed a nose for news. She became a stringer at The Times-Picayune, writing the paper’s first story on the then-unknown phenomenon we now call the Internet.
She went on to become a staff writer at the paper, covering city government, K-12 education, higher education, underage drinking, homeless teens, illegal gambling, hazardous waste, river restoration and other topics.
In 1998, Sara moved to Salem, Ore., to achieve her dream of becoming an environmental reporter. Her favorite assignment at The Statesman-Journal was traveling to Iceland to cover Keiko, the “Free Willy” orca whale, as he was repatriated to his homeland.
Sara left the West Coast for the rolling hills of Kentucky in 2002. She was the last person to occupy The Courier-Journal‘s South-Central Kentucky bureau, part of the paper’s storied network of outposts across the state. While at the C-J, Sara worked on two major investigative projects, “Locked in Suffering,” about the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates in county jails, and “Toxic Workplace,” about railroad workers sickened by solvent exposure on the job.
Sara’s expertise in environmental health topics continued at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she worked from 2002-2005. One major investigation uncovered the risk to thousands of food-manufacturing workers nationwide from what came to be called “popcorn lung,” a devastating illness caused by breathing an artificial butter flavoring. For another major story, Sara convinced the Post-Dispatch to hire satellite image experts to analyze development patterns in the region’s wide floodplains. The study found that $2.2 billion worth of development had been built on thousands of acres of land that was under water in the Great Flood of 1993.
Freelancing and Teaching
In 2005, Sara started freelancing full time. Her first project was to go to Peru to cover lead pollution from the Doe Run Co. smelter in La Oroya, a story that had eluded her for years. The resulting investigation, published in Mother Jones magazine in 2006, won an international journalism award. The Center for Public Integrity hired her to co-author a book about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans.
Sara started teaching journalism part-time in 2006 at Western Kentucky University’s award-winning School of Journalism & Broadcasting. She soon felt at home in the classroom as much as the newsroom. Sara traveled with students to eastern Kentucky coal mines and the cotton fields of India to cover stories. She won a WKU faculty teaching award, and her class’s project was a finalist for a national Online Journalism Award in 2010.
In 2010, Sara completed her master’s degree in journalism at University of Missouri-Columbia. Drawing on her environmental journalism background, her master’s thesis topic was “Climate Change in the Newsroom: Journalists’ Evolving Standards of Objectivity When Covering Global Warming.”
Sara’s first full-time teaching job was at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she taught a wide variety of classes, from Journalism Law and Ethics to Environmental Reporting.
In 2012, She was hired as an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. She teaches on the magazine faculty and works with Vox magazine, a weekly city magazine published through the journalism school.
She stays active in professional groups, including the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Online News Association.
She lives in Columbia, Mo., with her husband and son. She continues to freelance, and she loves cycling, folk dancing, traveling and cooking.
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