Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Media’s Failure to Report on Water – Good or Bad?

Even in our dry, drought-prone realm, you’d be hard pressed to find any newspaper with a reporter assigned solely to the water beat.

That’s not a guess. Kate Galbraith, a San Francisco-based journalist, recently wrote in America’s premier journalism publication, the Columbia Journalism Review,

 When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, [only] one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.

No one showed up for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Phoenix American, the Las Vegas Review Journal or any of hundreds of other papers covering America’s drought belt. Galbrath explains why she thinks this is:

I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the [Texas] Tribune [which she reported for] pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens—many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.

Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system.

To an editor, water news is neither “dog bites man” or “man bites dog.” It’s no one cares whether the dog or the man bit anything.

This lack of coverage hurts a water community that is trying to increase public awareness of the value of water, the need to conserve and the need to invest in improved supply reliability and infrastructure. But before we lament our inability to call the local paper’s in-the-know, experienced water reporter, let’s consider two things.

First, he or she is not likely to be in-the-know and experienced. The sorry state of the newspaper business has led to high turn-over, especially among the (relatively) well-paid more senior reporters.  Chances are, if you were working with a dedicated water beat reporter, you’d be working with a recent hire who didn’t know much more about water than the 78 percent who never heard of the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And forget broadcast outlets. Their on-camera “personalities” may have a bit more experience, but unless the water kills someone or is really, really cute, they’re probably not going to cover it.

And second, given the pressure on reporters to write stories that generate comments, what do you suppose they’d be writing about? Would it be the need to invest in boring old concrete infrastructure, or a justification of a district’s proposed rate increase?

We don’t think so. In the times a water beat reporter would find exciting, like the current drought, you’d get sensationalism in overkill mode. Galbrath recognizes this, listing “Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants!  Drought and  hunting! Drought and the military!” – with a link to each one!

Such coverage might drive temporary conservation, but the goal of any experienced water communicator should be to change long-time water use patterns, not support come-and-go drought-related conservation.

In less “exciting” times, would you see articles that support a more enlightened citizen view of water? Articles that explain the value of water or the need to conserve it? Sure. Some.

But you would see much more of  sensationalism in non-drought clothing. “Water district expenses out of control! Water quality deteriorates! Widow can’t pay water bill!  Water employees get lush retirement packages! District director takes golf junket!”

So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that water communicators must constantly struggle to get the media interested in the only thing on the entire planet that’s almost as essential as the very air we breathe.

 

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