Last weekend, the monstrous snowstorm that walloped the northeast prevented me from attending an event that I’d been looking forward to for months – a conference in Louisville focused on science journalism in the Ohio River Valley.
I’d been invited to speak at the event. My task was to deliver an outsider’s perspective on the science and environment reporting in the valley, an ecosystem that drains a total area of approximately 141,000 square miles and includes portions of ten states. The program said that I had a “10,000-foot view” of the coverage. It sounds impressive, but I was going to begin my talk by acknowledging that the view from 10,000 feet actually isn’t that great.
Most days, I’m stuck in the nosebleed seats and the conference was a chance to sit courtside. I value such opportunities because when people ask me about the cutbacks in science journalism, I usually say I’m most worried about regional and local coverage. There are still many reporters keeping an eye on the Environmental Protection Agency, but what about the myriad regional pollution-control departments and municipal waste managers around the country? When local news outlets cut their science and environment coverage, it is less likely than it is on the national level that somebody will step in to fill the void. That’s why the situation in places like the Ohio River Valley is so vitally important to the industry at large.
I was hoping to learn more about the journalism in that region at the conference (described as a “first of its kind”), which was organized by the Rivers Institute at Hanover College and WFPL, a news radio station in Louisville. Nonetheless, preparing for my talk was enlightening, and since I couldn’t share what I learned at the conference, I will share it here. As I had planned to do with my talk, this survey will focus on news outlets’ Web presence, since the Internet is Americans’ second most popular source of information about science (TV is still number one), according a recent report by the National Science Board.
Radio in the ORV
The most newsworthy place to begin a survey of science journalism in the Ohio River Valley is with the newly minted Ohio River Radio Consortium, a network of regional public radio stations and reporters. Launched in late January and hosted by WFPL (Louisville’s NPR News station), the group produces environmental news segments for radio and the Web. WFPL currently has fifteen partner stations through out the region, from Pennsylvania and Ohio down into Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee.
The Ohio River, “which is the backbone of this ecosystem,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is the largest tributary of the Mississippi River. It is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in Pittsburgh, and flows 981 miles in a southwesterly direction to its confluence with the Mississippi in Cairo, Illinois. On its Web site, the Ohio River Radio Consortium has an admirable explanation of its regional focus:
The river connects us—geographically, socially, historically, and economically. It feeds a watershed that is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of people. It slakes our thirst, carries our waste, transports our goods. And, like pollution and other environmental problems, it ignores state lines. Pesticide run-off from a farm near Pittsburgh rushes past the drinking water pipes for Cincinnati. Coal-fired power plant emissions from Louisville waft over West Virginia. Pollution is only one of our region’s struggles, of course. But there are hopeful environmental stories, as well. Cities are reconnecting residents with their waterfronts. Biologists are saving endangered species. Local farmers are getting more food on local tables. In short, telling the environmental stories of a region connects the dots, so to speak, and may ultimately help us make more informed decisions.
So far, the consortium has aired a piece by WVXU in Cincinnati on testing the Ohio River for pharmaceuticals and other chemicals; one about tackling traffic pollution along the river from the Allegheny Front, a prolific and impressive environment program in Pittsburgh; and one by WOSE in Columbus about capturing methane and other gases emitted from manure ponds. In addition, there are a number of reports—about Louisville’s climate action plan or the recovery of endangered freshwater mussels in the region, for instance—from Kristin Espeland Gourlay, WFPL’s environment reporter and the consortium’s director. The Web site also features a blog by Gourlay, called The Pulse, and posts from other reporters around the valley (although the source is not always clearly labeled).