the observatory

Whither the Watershed

A field guide to environmental journalism in the Ohio River Valley
March 3, 2010

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.

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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).

A couple of the consortium’s partner stations have impressive science and environment features on their own sites as well. WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana (in association with Indiana Public Media), for instance, produces an excellent podcast and videocast called Moment of Science as well as an excellent environment page focusing on local stories. Most of the science and environment pages at other partner stations simply post stories from NPR or wire services.

WKMS in Murray, Kentucky, has a nice looking “Science News & Info” page that aggregates content from NPR’s Science Friday, WNYC’s RadioLab, e! Science News, and EarthSky. However, as the title of the page implies, it’s not all news. While Science Friday and RadioLab are great programs, e! Science News distributes press releases from research universities and EarthSky’s Web site doesn’t have much information about its operations. Using such content is fine, but the station should more clearly label and explain the source of the various streams of information.

Television in the ORV

As usual, there’s less to say about television science and the environment news. It’s a medium that has never excelled in that department. Nonetheless, one finds a couple of exceptions in the Ohio River Valley.

The place to start is KDKA, the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. Although the pace is somewhat infrequent, the station seems to crank out more locally focused environment stories than any of its regional competitors (judging by their Web sites, at least). Recent coverage has included topics such as solar power, the G-20 conference in September, water and air quality, urban planning, and recycling programs.

Unfortunately, KDKA posts these stories on its Going Green page, located in the Lifestyle section of its Web site. A lot of local news outlets (TV, newspaper, or otherwise) use this categorization, which implies a soft-news approach to journalism. A much better play, if the reporting is serious, as it seems to be at KDKA, is to create an environment page under the news section.

The next place to turn is WRTV (The Indy Channel), the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis. Again, we have a Going Green section, which is somewhat more fitting than in the case of KDKA since WRTV’s local reporting tends toward the news-you-can-use variety. There are a number of straight news stories at The Indy Channel as well, however, including pieces about the economic benefits of Indianapolis’s sustainability efforts and a pilot program in local schools to improve energy efficiency.

A lot of the WRTV’s other science and environment content comes from The Associated Press. That is, of course, perfectly acceptable for national stories, but The Indy Channel also relies on the AP for some local issues, such as a recent story about a wind power project in eastern Indiana, that it would be nice to see the station cover on its own.

A lot of the bells and whistles on WRTV’s Going Green page, including its videos and interactives, come from an outfit called Internet Broadcasting, which describes itself as “the leading provider of local Web sites, content, and advertising revenue solutions to the world’s largest and most successful media companies.” Indeed, many local sites feature International Broadcasting’s content, and the group has distribution partnerships with both the AP and CNN, but it’s unclear exactly how its content is produced and its operations seem to lack the transparency of traditional journalism.

Newspapers in the ORV

Not surprisingly, the most robust science and environment coverage comes from the region’s newspapers. There are a number of outlets where one might launch an exploration of this medium, but since the conference was in Louisville I had planned to give the hometown advantage to the local paper, the Courier-Journal.

The Courier-Journal has really gone all out in terms of its Web presence. It recently launched on its Web site—a high-profile portal to all of its environment coverage that features tabs for local news, national/global news, useful links, a readers’ forum, photos, and a kids’ section.

Oddly, the local news section doesn’t contain only local news—the lead story at press time, for instance, was an AP article from Sydney about ice loss in Antarctica—but there is still plenty of local stuff. For example, on Sunday, the paper published an incredible full-page feature on “all the weird weather” around the globe, with an emphasis on the meteorological conditions around Louisville. The feature was then digitized for KentuckianaGreen. Other articles there run the gamut of environmental topics, from climate, to pollution, to wildlife issues.

Beyond its solid news coverage, one of the most impressive features of KentuckianaGreen is its outstanding collection of blogs. The Courier-Journal’s environment reporter, James Bruggers, writes the lead blog, Watchdog Earth, where he gets in a post a day on a variety of scientific topics both local and national. Rumor has it that the blog had more traffic than any other news blog at the Courier-Journal last year, with the exception of sports, although that is unconfirmed. At any rate, next to Watchdog Earth are four blogs written by community members, including an environmental engineer, an aerospace engineer, the director of Interfaith Power & Light (a nonprofit “eco-theology organization), and an environmental education and sustainable development advocate.

Though it hasn’t done as many in recent years, the Courier-Journal also has a strong reputation for long, investigative features. Bruggers, for instance, authored an excellent series on coal-ash ponds all the way back in 2002, long before breaks at ponds in Tennessee and Georgia in 2008 put the issue on the national media’s radar. In 2008, Bruggers did another series on pollution in Louisville’s primary watershed, Beargrass Creek, which drains into the Ohio River. Both series featured incisive articles complemented by excellent graphics.

Moving south, The Tennessean in Nashville has a conspicuous environment page similar to KentuckianaGreen, called TennesseeGreen, although it is not nearly as rich or well developed. That’s not to say that the paper doesn’t publish a lot of very good science and environment reporting. It does. Anne Paine, the paper’s environment reporter, recently produced a long, sharp piece on the environmental impact of spent ammo, which hunting and recreation activities leave scattered all over Tennessee to leach lead. Paine has a blog, Environmental Notes, but the format is very clunky.

Like other papers in the region, the Tennessean has also poured a lot of effort into coverage of coal ash ponds. It has a page on its site dedicated to “The TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] Coal Ash Disaster” in 2008. The page features an excellent timeline of the event and its aftermath. There are links to the paper’s ongoing coverage of the TVA as well as primary documents related to the investigation of the 2008 spill. But the page seems incomplete because many relevant stories (particularly those published in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 spill) are not listed there.

If it’s coal and mining coverage you’re after, the best place to turn might be the The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. Unlike the Courier-Journal and The Tennessean, the Gazette doesn’t have a conspicuous environmental news section (which is odd given the volume of work it produces in that area). But if you delve into its “special reports” section, you will find an ongoing series titled “Mining the Mountains,” which features almost daily articles by the paper’s prolific environment reporter, Ken Ward, Jr.

In addition to these pieces, Ward contributes to the Gazette’s watchdog blog, Sustained Outrage, which has solid environment and energy and chemical industry categories as well as a range of others.

Blogwise, however, Ward’s main focus is his own Coal Tattoo blog, which has received national acclaim and celebrated its first birthday last month after almost 1,000 posts. The site is well indexed, with categories approaching the subject from a wide variety of environmental, political, and socioeconomic angles. Of particular interest to media reporters such as myself is Ward’s “media coverage” category. A recent item, for example, was an interesting dustup between Ward and Walt Williams at West Virginia’s State Journal.

In early February, President Obama announced the formation a task force to speed the development of carbon capture and sequestration technology, and then organized a meeting with the governors of ten energy-producing states, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin then had a conference call with local reporters to discuss the meeting, which Ward found peculiar.

“In Washington, President Obama and his Nobel-prize winning Energy Secretary, Steve Chu, are talking about figuring out how to perfect the equipment that’s needed to be able to burn coal in power plants while not contributing to global warming,” Ward wrote at Coal Tattoo.

“But Manchin and most of the West Virginia media don’t want to talk about much except whether those ‘tree-huggers’ at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are going to stop trying to make sure coal operators comply with the Clean Water Act when they perform mountaintop removal mining.”

The State Journal’s Williams challenged Ward in the comments section, accusing him of “mischaracterizing” his statements and those of other reporters and of “advancing particular agendas.”

“You know that local media cater to a different audience than the national media. Local media outlets need to know what their readers are concerned about, and their stories must address those concerns,” Williams wrote. “No reporter was asking Manchin how to protect West Virginia from ‘tree-huggers’ — figuratively or literally — and I believe you know that.”

Williams thanked Ward for posting the complete audio recording of the call, however, which reveals that nobody used the word tree-hugger and that Williams did ask a question about CCS. But many other questions exhibited a distinctive is-he-out-to-get-us tone and, far from advancing an agenda, Ward is heard displaying old-school journalistic grit as the only reporter who actually challenged one of Manchin’s statements. When the governor complained that the Obama administration’s energy policies could “artificially raise the cost of energy,” Ward asked about the “hidden public health costs” of coal mining and burning, which, if taken into account, suggest that the current cost of coal is actually artificially low. Manchin ducked the question, saying that he “just wants to compete in the market.”

Similarly assiduous reporting is also to be found at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where a 2006 headline once proclaimed, “Coal’s economic promise masks [the] high cost of ruination.” Unlike the Charleston paper, however, the Post-Gazette files its content into news sections rather than blogs. The environment section is chock full of watchdog reporting. Recent articles have dug into Pittsburgh’s highest-in-the-nation soot pollution, a massive and mysterious fish kill in a local waterway, and subsidence at a local dam caused by long-wall mining. The Post-Gazette also produces some of the best wildlife coverage in the region, a lot of which if filed under the Hunting & Fishing tab of its Sports section. A recent series of articles about the management of local deer populations was particularly interesting.

But the best in-house general science reporting in the Ohio River Valley undoubtedly comes from the Columbus Dispatch. The paper publishes a weekly science page featuring stories that have nationwide appeal—from solar dynamics to 3-D camera technology—but usually also a connection to Ohio, often via a research project at Ohio State University. The weekly section is notable not only for the quality of the reporting, but also for its graphical elements (which are nicely digitized for Web site), such as those found in recent reports on the physics of curling and hockey injuries.

The Dispatch’s science team—Spencer Hunt and Mark Somerson—also maintains an active Science & Environment blog and the science page aggregates wire stories from around the country. There is also a Going Green section online, which features a lot of good reporting on local energy and pollution issues in addition to clips from the wire. Unlike a lot of other papers in the region, however, the science page overshadows the environment page. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Having two solid news pages is a plus, and a few major metropolitan papers in the Ohio River Valley neither a science nor an environment section.

The Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky deserves a special mention for its environment news section, The Greenspot. It is a bit difficult to pick out the locally focused articles amid the sea of wire stories, but The Greenspot beats the larger Indianapolis Star’s Green.Indy page.

Green.Indy is conspicuous and well designed, but it has none of the forceful reporting found at places like KentuckianaGreen. Most of its stories are fluffy, news-you-can-use content pushing readers to green their lifestyles. Moreover, most the articles aren’t written by Star reporters, but rather by the staff of Custom Publications, a division of the Star’s Information Center, which says it produces “a variety of special publications and content features, including a portion of those on” I’m not sure what that means, but a lot of CustomPubs’ work reeks of thinly veiled advertising for green products.

An even worse environment-news strategy, though, is the one adopted by the Cincinnati Enquirer, which does absolutely nothing—no science section, no environment section … nothing. Pretty much every paper in the Ohio River Valley has gone through cutbacks of some sort, and Enquirer may have been hit harder that most. I don’t know. But Cincinnati is the second-largest metropolitan area in the region behind Pittsburgh, so the paper’s absence on the science and environment front is all the more regrettable. Given the commendable efforts of its competitors, it should be doing more.

The ORV and the Nation

Unfortunately, very few of the stories about the Ohio River Valley ever make it out of that media ecosystem. When the national media do turn their attention toward the valley, they tend to focus on one thing: coal.

From The Wall Street Journal to GQ, national reporters are fascinated by the processes, politics, and economics of coal mining and have devoted significant acreage to covering it. It’s not a new story by any means, but there does seem to have been a spike in coverage during the twilight of the Bush administration, when the administration tried to relax the rules meant to reduce the environmental impact of mountaintop-removal mining. The Obama administration’s efforts to restore stricter oversight have kept the story going, although since Obama took office the story’s focus has shifted from environmental to political.

Coal country’s elected officials and unions have already played a central role in crafting the current energy and climate bills under consideration on Capitol Hill, and they will continue to play a central role in determining the fate of those bills. The political focus is understandable, of course, but consider this recent story from Politico about the GOP power politics in the region. There is plenty of information about how the party is “mining … anxieties” about coal’s contribution to the local economy in the form of jobs, but there are no mentions of the costs in extracts in terms of environmental degradation and public health.

Not all the focus has gone away from coal’s environmental impact, however. Coverage of polluted drinking water took off at the end of 2008; coal-ash storage ponds became the focus of national attention following the spills in Tennessee and Georgia; and more recently, there’s been quite a bit of interest in the carbon capture and storage demonstration project under way at the Mountaineer coal-fired power plant in West Virginia.

And to be fair, not all the national press coverage of the Ohio River Valley is related to coal. The Ohio River Valley made cameo appearances in installments of two award-winning series over the past year: “The Smokestack Effect,” by USA Today, and “Toxic Waters,” by The New York Times. There have also been occasional stories about bacterial pollution in the Ohio River and its tributaries, and stories about the local chemical industry following the explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant in West Virginia in 2008. But such coverage is fairly sparse.

When it comes to pollution, urban development, and wildlife issues, the Ohio River Valley is being overshadowed by two other ecosystems to the north and east: the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay, respectively. Searching through the local ORV media, it doesn’t take long to see that there are a lot that of worthwhile stories the national media is missing. So if you have the time, get out of the nosebleed seats and sneak down to field level.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.