It’s true that the mainstream media has plenty to apologize for, having flubbed reporting on Iraq and the financial crisis and for its tortoise-like pace in moving into the modern age of interactive journalism. (For an interesting take on that last part, and more, see Dan Gillmor’s worthwhile “Eleven Things I’d Do If I Ran A News Organization.” No anniversary stories or top 10 lists, for starters.)
But this week brings a powerful reminder of what the MSM can do that isn’t generally possible in other quarters — and in this case, the MSM is explicitly trying to empower citizen journalists and fellow scribes to run further with the story.
I’m speaking, of course, about the powerful package that ran this week in The New York Times on lax enforcement of our country’s water-pollution rules. It’s the latest installment in a series called “Toxic Waters.”
Charles Duhigg’s story starts with a woman whose kids got scabs and rashes and had teeth enamel eaten away by polluted drinking water. She lives just 17 miles from the state Capitol in West Virginia:
Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.
“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks. “How is this still happening today?”
The Times wore out a lot of virtual shoe leather on this project, filing public-records requests with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and with all 50 states. Then the newspaper turned the information into publicly available and easily usable database of polluters — the kind of thing we’d like to try here at InvestigateWest.
The Times also conducted more than 250 interviews with government officials and others. And it came to the conclusion that something like one in every 10 Americans has been exposed to illegally high levels of pollution. The probe also documented how enforcement of the clean-water laws slipped under the Bush administration. (Sure, we all suspected that — but someone has to go out and do the hard work to document it if you want to bring about change.)
Now, I have been contributing to the blogosphere for nearly four years, so I’m not anti-blogger by any means.
But as an erstwhile denizen of the MSM, I know what it takes to produce major projects like this. (In fact, Lise Olsen and Lisa Stiffler and me, along with others at the P-I, poked into Clean Water Act compliance for a 2002 series on Puget Sound and found, as the Times did, widespread pollution being tolerated by the government.)
If we are to continue to have the kind of information we need to be effective citizens, someone’s going to have to pick up the investigative reporting that was once widespread at newspapers. (And we have to modernize it with techniques such as crowdsourcing and database publishing as well.)
I don’t see how bloggers can pull this off as the entire answer, although it’s great to have outlets like Talking Points Memo and Propublica helping fill the void left by so many newspaper closings and retrenchments. We’re going to need more of that as time goes on an advertising-based journalism wanes.
The great thing about the Times’ piece is that by providing all this information to everyone, it at least makes it possible for bloggers and what remains of the MSM to do their own local clean-water investigations. Here’s how the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Watchdog Tipsheet put it:
The New York Times gave a significant gift to journalists around the U.S. who cover water quality but are short on time or resources to track down local stories. And if you cover coal mining and/or Appalachia, a Sept. 11 announcement from EPA combines with the NYT coverage to create irresistible fodder for local water pollution coverage.
To find out about the enforcement record in your state, see the Times info graphic, including tab 3, which shows how many enforcement actions are taken per 100 violations. It’s eye-opening.
Worthwhile bells and whistles came with the Times’ package, including responses from state environmental regulators and a lengthy sider by Cornelia Dean to help readers figure out the quality of their drinking water.
The final and perhaps most important point to note is that the Times’ effort spurred actual change, with the EPA just before publication announcing it would give extra scrutiny to 79 proposed coal plants in Appalachia.
— Robert McClure