Web Publication Uses Data to Tell Complex Air-Toxics Story

May 15, 2007

 

A visit to a boot camp before the last Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Vermont opened the door for a special report on air pollution in San Diego by a webonly publication, voiceofsandiego.org

Reporter Rob Davis, who covers environmental issues for the Internet-based nonprofit news outlet, gives lots of credit to the special training and insights of the boot camp followed up by the annual conference. And, he also got help from fellow SEJ members.

"I"m not just saying this: The story was a testament to the rewards of being an SEJ member," Davis said.

The result of his efforts: "What's in Our Air?" – a twopart series on the big polluters in his community that also included a database where readers could look up emissions in their ZIP code.

While one polluter was not a big surprise – a power plant – the others were more common, like dry cleaners and gasoline stations.

SEJ Member Dave Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, organized the boot camp and then mentored Davis in his project.

Poulson said that he likes the project for its "simplicity and its complexity. It comes across as a story that says, 'this is complicated stuff, but I"m going to explain it to you so that you can grasp it.' There is the ZIP code search that quickly lets a reader find out how many pounds of stuff get spewed nearby. Readers understand that.

"And he has some nifty comparisons, first explaining that one pound of carbon monoxide pollution is enough to violate U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ambient air standards in a cube of air that's 115 feet on each side. Then he explains that one aging power plant put out enough carbon monoxide 'to sully the air in 12 Empire State Buildings.'

"When things get complicated, he warns readers that it isn't as easy as it looks. One example: He poses the question of whether local residents should move to a less polluted ZIP code," Poulson said.

"Here's how he answers it: 'Not necessarily. Calculating the effect of exposure is complicated, health experts and regulators say. Because a drop of one chemical can be more dangerous than a gallon of another. And the emissions diffuse and migrate on the wind.'"

Poulson said that "rather than write an impenetrable or superficial story, Rob acknowledges the inherent complexity of evaluating air pollution while assuring readers that he can explain it to them."

'Then he does just that," Poulson said

SEJournal asked Davis to answer some questions about his Internet-only story. Some of his interesting advice to reporters: Treat your project like a Chia Pet.

Q: Explain what voiceofsandiego.org is. What are the pluses of such a platform and what are the minuses?
 A: We're a two-year-old nonprofit, online daily newspaper. San Diego used to be a three-newspaper town, and that had been cut to one by the time we launched in 2005. We first focused primarily on city government – what we saw as an under-covered subject in San Diego – and quickly branched out to include other traditional beats like real estate, crime and the environment. We've all gotten our start in traditional newsrooms, so the tools we use are the same. Our focus is almost exclusively on being watchdogs, holding our local officials accountable through indepth reporting. So having the environment beat is perfect.

The advantages of the platform are limitless. I"m able to interact with readers more than I ever have before, both by using audio, video and other interactive features – and just because we encourage our readers to e-mail us with tips and story ideas. While I still miss having a paper product in my hands each day, I don't miss the hold-your-breath circulation drives.

Q: I understand that a boot camp before last fall's SEJ conference was a key element in getting this project done. Tell me about that and how it helped you. 
A: I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Michigan State University's first environmental reporting boot camp. We spent three days poring over a range of topics from Excel management to climate change to Massachusetts v. EPA.

I got to talking with Dave Poulson, one of MSU's instructors, over a beer one night about pollution story ideas. I went to the conference wanting to know what air pollution stories the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory could help unlock. Dave instead pointed me to a couple of California regulators that have air-pollutionspecific databases. The seed was planted. As soon as I returned from Vermont, I sent in my records request for the database I ultimately relied on.

I have to note that SEJ members' help extended beyond the boot camp and conference. As I slogged through my first major look at air pollution, some loyal list-servers provided sound advice and counsel. I"m not just saying this: The story was a testament to the rewards of being an SEJ member

Q: How did the idea for the story begin? Where did the idea come from? 
A: My editor and I wanted to uncover and profile the region's most egregious air polluter. San Diego doesn't have Los Angeles' smog, but our air is hardly clear. It seemed like an obvious question that neither of us could answer: Who was the dirtiest polluter? The story's other angles all branched out from there. For example: Was air pollution more likely to discriminate against the poor? (Yes.) Which ZIP code had the most toxic pollution? (Escondido, Calif.)

Q: How did you sell it to your editor? 
A: He was on board from the inception, so I didn't have to make a case. His role was in support, giving me the time I need- ed to effectively learn about and engage the topic, including the week-long trip to Vermont. With a staff of five reporters, I"m grateful for being afforded the time to devote to projects like these – the stories that matter.

Q: What kind of sources of information did you use? 
A: Once back from Vermont, I requested an Excel spreadsheet of 2004's air pollution from the San Diego Air Pollution Control District, our local air regulator. They gave it to me in the form I asked for, which was a big help. So that gave me my starting point – something easily sortable by business name, by ZIP code, by pounds of pollution, by chemical or criteria. That database and I got to know each other quite well. From that, I totaled pounds of pollution by ZIP; cross-checked that with median-household income stats and began making calls.

With my analysis in hand, I turned to public health experts to answer questions about whether residents should be concerned. Regulators were able to put the results in historical context. Environmental justice advocates pointed to the results as one of the fundamental reasons they exist. Energy experts helped put that sector's pollution in perspective. And the polluters themselves offered great insight about what some feel is an unfair pollution measurement system.

Q: Do you use an outline or some other mechanism to help you organize the material? If so, how flexible do you view it? How do you manage the information you found.
 A: I managed just about everything either on a legal pad or in Excel. No tricks. I made different versions of the spreadsheet for different purposes – one to crunch toxic chemical pollution, one to crunch federally regulated pollutants and one keep my income vs. pollution calculations.

Q: What results surprised you? In the end did you find out something that was different from what you expected?
A: While we were able to pinpoint the top ZIP code for toxic pollution, nothing there betrayed even the slightest hint that it was any different than my own neighborhood. Same traffic, same businesses, same guys moseying down the street in cowboy hats. That underlined how ubiquitous business' toxic air pollution is: benzene from the gas station, perchloroethylene from your local dry cleaner. You don't see it, you don't know it's there, and yet it poses a health risk. And as serious as that risk may be, it pales in comparison to the cancer risk posed by diesel emissions. I didn't realize how small of a role businesses play in contributing to the ambient air's cancer risk. 

Beyond that, the project drove home the reality of environmental justice. We found that ZIP codes where median household income is below $30,000 produced five times more feder- ally regulated pollution than ZIPs where income levels exceeded $70,000.

Q: What kind of response did it get from readers?
A: It was well-received. Said one: "If only our lungs could scream for help." Beyond the initial round of e-mails, though, the story helped serve as a jump off into other important air stories. We have a pair of 50-year-old power plants that are nearing the ends of their useful lives. They're the region's No. 1 and No. 3 sources of federally regulated pollutants like carbon monoxide and particulates. Their replacements will be equally significant sources of pollution for the next 40 or 50 years. But that is rarely discussed as their replacements are considered. We looked at that debate – and why the pollution angle gets left out – in a follow-up story. 

A third story came from follow-up conversations prompted by the project. We examined the regulatory gap surrounding scientists' growing understanding of the problem posed by pollution that starts in the air but falls in the water.

Q: The website also has a video. Is it the first one you made? Tell us about the experience and how you did it.
A: We saw this as an opportunity to experiment with interactive multimedia features. Vladimir Kogan, our content producer, pored over my spreadsheets and created an easily searchable database of the region's ZIP codes. Readers could plug in their ZIP and see charts comparing their neighborhood's pollution with the county average, as well as a list of their biggest local polluters.

I made the photographs for the slideshow, wrote a script and used my best smooth-jazz radio voice to narrate it. We recorded audio with a program called Audacity. Vlad then used a free Windows program called Photo Story, which allows for zooming action and audio narration. We then converted the video Photo Story created into a Flash animation, so we could embed it on the page.

Q: If someone else wanted to do a project like this, what three pieces of advice would you give them?
A:First, find the basic question you want to answer: What's the most polluted ZIP code? What business produced the most air pollution last year? Let that basic question guide your story because you may encounter all sorts of hellacious databases full of codes and weird designations. But if you know what you're looking for from the start, you can make the data work for you, instead of letting it whip you. 

Second, make friends with the local or state regulators who oversee whatever medium you're investigating. Chat with them. See what databases they have. Also make sure you find people outside the regulatory agency who can help translate. There's a reason the public doesn't always instinctively know what the most polluted ZIP code or biggest polluter in your region is. Regulators admittedly have a hell of a time effectively conveying their reams of information to the public. While I"m still amazed at how much information is available online, I"m also equally amazed at how inaccessible it still is to people who don't speak in acronyms.

Third, treat your project like a Chia Pet. Pay it a bit of attention each day. Between other stories, water it. Let it grow. Nurture it. Be patient. It's tough to convince an editor to have you out of pocket for a week at a time. But if you can lay the project's early groundwork, it becomes easier to get the requisite time for major rounds of interviews and writing.

See part 1 of "What's In Our Air?" at www.voiceofsandiego. org/articles/2007/02/24/environment/970pollution.txt.

Rob Davis graduated from the University of Richmond in 2000 and went to work at the twice-weekly Hanover (Va.) Herald- Progress, covering everything under the sun, from the Washington, D.C. sniper shootings to the Miss Mechanicsville pageant. He then moved to the daily Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star in 2003, first covering county government and then cops and courts. "With visions of Manifest Destiny floating in my head, I split the East Coast in June 2005, meandered cross-country all summer and landed at voiceofsandiego.org. I've been there a bit more than a year, covering transportation and the environment. Life is good," he writes. Davis can be reached by phone at (619) 325-0525 or via email at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org.

Mike Dunne is assistant editor of the SEJournal. 

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.

MIKE DUNNE