Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘reporting’

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.

 

Perspective, Please!

The media’s breathless coverage of the Fukushima nuclear accident continues with a stream of reports about the radiation in the wind over New York, in the spinach in Japan, in your hair, on your car, over your head and under your feet. It’s all too much.  Literally.


A friend sent me this chart today.  Check out the expandable, more readable version here.  The block that’s smack dab in the middle of the box with blue blocks in it is the average daily dose of someone living by the Fukushima plant after the accident. The big blue block across the bottom is the radiation you’d get from one flight from New  York to LA.

The second tiny green box in the green blocks is the sum total of all the blue boxes – it’s three green squares.  The next largest green box is what you’d get in one year of living in a stone, brick or concrete house – four boxes.  The big green block is the maximum yearly dose allowed for U.S. radiation users.

Put all the green boxes into the top orange box. The big orange block is a fatal dose.  How’s that for perspective?

Most of the media is ignoring this kind of stuff since it doesn’t exactly make for bold headlines, but the  LA Times is to be commended for a piece by reporter Melissa Healy  it ran Sunday called, “From Japan’s damaged nuclear complex: radiation and fear.”  Here’s the lead:

In the wake of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the powerful tsunami that followed, the stricken nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant released not one but two powerful and invisible forces: radiation and fear of radiation.

Both can spread quickly, and with insidious stealth. They permeate walls, make no distinction between rich and poor, and are particularly hard on children.

And elevated levels of either can have long-term health consequences.

Read the whole piece. It’s short and well worth it.  Stress, like radiation, has distinct and proven detrimental effects on health.  Doesn’t the media  have a responsibility, therefore, to report much more accurately about the health risks – not just the radiation levels – associated with the disaster?