Top TV Reporters Say Don't Fear The Technical

November 15, 2006

 

 By MIKE DUNNE 
In one case, it was taking a recurring story one step further.

In two stories, a phone tip prompted the reporters. Another was a big story for a big anniversary – one that would affect every person on the planet.

The finalists for the Society of Environmental Journalists annual television reporting award came to their stories in different ways. But each finalist found compelling ways to tell their stories, focusing on how events affect people and the environment in which they live.

Environmental stories are often technical and difficult to tell – especially in a medium as ephemeral as television. But the finalists agreed that educating yourself and making sure you understand the science and technical material behind the story is the key to engaging viewers.

The large market finalists are:

• WBAL-TV of Baltimore and reporters John Sherman and Beau Kershaw, "Dirty Secret." The series of stories looked at New Earth Services, a facility near Chesapeake Bay designed to compost chicken and crab wastes. Instead of being an answer to pollution, the stories found the facility funneling nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia and bacteria into the bay. The state of Maryland not only failed to oversee operations – it actually funded the business. The stories resulted in fines, a closure and a moratorium on new composting facilities. WBAL-TV's story was also a finalist for the Grantham Award.

• WBZ of Boston and Kristen M. Setera, "Car Inspection Corruption," an investigation into whether a Massachusetts official rigged state auto emission tests so more cars would fail and mechanics would buy a software package in which he had an interest. The official was fired.

• Cable News Network's "Melting Point: Tracking the Global Warming Threat," by producer Brian Rockus and correspondent Miles O'Brien. The hour-long documentary looked at global climate change, telling the story through a small Pacific Ocean island nation, Alaska natives and low-lying Louisiana and New Orleans. Small market finalists are:

• WTAE of Pittsburgh and Jim Parsons, Kendall Cross and Shawn Quinlan, "Toxic Treatment." Parsons documented the use of a kerosene-based waste, MC-70, and drilling brine as dust suppressants on rural roads in Pennsylvania. Toxins in those two liquids threatened the environment and people who lived along the roadways. The state suspended use of MC-70 after the report.

• WSMV-TV of Nashville and reporter/anchor Demetria Kalodimos and photographer Phil Dunaway, "The Dirt on Dickson County." The investigative report documented how trichloroethylene, or TCE, had polluted the ground and surface water of a nearby, mostly rural county. The suspected sources were the county's landfill and a now-closed industry that used the chemical. The problems ranged from residents who could no longer use wells or springs on their property to a church camp that used the tainted water to fill its swimming pool.

• WGCU-TV of Fort Myers, Fla., and Alexa Elliott, "Delicate Blooms: South Florida's Native Orchids." The station did a halfhour documentary on rare and often endangered orchids and the swamps in which they are found and the threats to their survival.

The winners will be announced on Wednesday evening, Oct. 25, at the beginning of the SEJ annual conference in Burlington, Vt.

SEJournal asked five of the six finalists a few simple questions to get to the Inside Story on what made their stories worthy of recognition. Elliott was unavailable during the time this story was reported and written:

Q. What started your story? (Was it a tip, something you noticed, etc.?) What went into the decision to spend the time and resources?
 WSMV's Kalodimos said her story wasn't new. "The TCE contamination had been in the news on and off, and we had done cursory, brief stories (a few packages and voice-overs) on the problem, that always included the official line, 'the levels are considered safe... or well within the concentrations allowable by the EPA.' To be honest, hearing that phrase parroted over and over just caused my journalistic senses to tingle. I decided to look a little closer. Being a full-time anchor, I report in my spare time, so I did a lot of telephone and e-mail work before I began shooting."

CNN's Rokus said, "For CNN's 25th anniversary, we wanted to examine a story that was global, important and, obviously, newsworthy. Since this was for a documentary, we also looked for a story that hadn't received a large amount of recent in-depth coverage on television. Climate change is a perennially newsworthy subject, but it rarely has the kind of breaking news that would propel in-depth coverage. We found that without those breaking news 'flashpoints,' climate change hadn't received a lot of attention. Given its global importance, it was the perfect story for an international news organization like CNN."

WTAE's Parsons said, "Our story started with a complaint from a viewer. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) dumped thousands of gallons of a kerosene-based product called MC-70 on a 3-mile dirt road. It was definitely a 'shoot first, ask questions later' situation. We had nothing to lose by driving out into the country and getting video of the oily substance and interviewing the worried homeowner. We decided to invest more time in the story once we discovered that PennDOT planned to use MC-70 on a wide-scale basis beginning in spring 2007.

WBZ's Setera said, "This investigation began with a tip I received following a series of earlier reports I had done that raised serious questions about the accuracy of the state's emissions test and the overall management of the program at both the state and federal level. Shortly after these reports aired, I received a phone call from a man who claimed to have an outside business arrangement with a manager at the state Department of Environmental Protection. He claimed that both he and this DEP manager had come up with a scheme to rig the auto emissions test so more vehicles would fail and they could personally profit by selling software that would teach auto repairers how to fix vehicles that had failed the test.

"This person also alleged that the managers at the state DEP eventually changed the state's software to make it look like this program was meeting its goals in order to meet federal guidelines. According to this tipster, the DEP manager had allegedly given him proprietary state data to help him perfect the software that the two would eventually end up selling. We decided to dedicate the time and resources necessary to pursue this story because these allegations were very serious, and if there were any truth to them, our story would impact everyone who owns a vehicle in Massachusetts. Thousands of motorists might have gotten an inaccurate emissions test and paid for vehicle repairs that just weren't necessary," Setera said.

WBAL's Sherman said he has been doing stories on environmental challenges to the Chesapeake Bay for the past 2-3 years. As a result, he has the ear "of a lot of citizens and activists who alert me to what's going on." Tipsters pointed him at the story of New Earth Services and the pollution coming from the operations.

Q. What elements made your story compelling (video, the human story, etc.)?
 Kalodimos said her TCE stories "certainly (had) the human element: a family's dream home lost to contamination they should have been told about, the almost cavalier attitude of a summer church camp that continued to fill its swimming pool with contaminated spring water because it was cheap, the heartbreak of 19 families whose children were born with cleft lip/palate, defying the epidemiological odds. This was a story with many tentacles; the hard part was choosing which ones to focus on."

CNN's Rokus said, "When we first set out to tell the story of climate change, our first concern was finding a way to make it into interesting television. It doesn't matter how important the subject matter is, if you can't keep viewers interested for an hour of TV. This can be an especially daunting challenge when telling science stories on television – and it's even more daunting when the science story in question is predicted to mostly occur over the course of hundreds of years.

"Our first priority, then, was finding stories of climate change happening now. We looked for humans, animals and places that could illustrate the effects of climate change for an audience which may be relatively unfamiliar with the concept.

"We began most of the hour-long documentary's six segments with one of those examples (for example, the Inuit in Alaska, polar bears on Hudson Bay, the island-nation of Tuvalu in the South Pacific). Once we had established for viewers the real-world importance of climate change, we used the second portion of each segment to explain the science behind the human (or animal) story. Hopefully, we provided a good mix of interesting characters and hard science," Larch said.

"Just by chance, we found that climate change was occurring in locations that would be interesting to viewers. We traveled to Churchill, Manitoba to tell the story of polar bears and spent a week each above the Arctic Circle and on Tuvalu (one of the smallest and most remote countries in the world). These are places most viewers don't have a chance to visit. Each location also made for incredibly compelling video.

"The exotic nature of these locations was also a concern, however. We wanted to make sure viewers in the United States realized climate change could affect them too – so we made a point to include New Orleans as one of our examples. We completed this show pre-Katrina, so our New Orleans segment focused on how its existing subsidence problem could combine with climate change-induced sea level rise to potentially flood the city."

Parsons said, "The visual image of MC-70 oozing on our car and dripping into a creek was compelling. Also, the lab results showing toxic levels of heavy metals helped drive home the point that this is stuff that probably shouldn't be getting spread onto roads next to waterways."

Setera said, "I think what made our story so compelling is that when the DEP manager was confronted with all of these allegations and given an opportunity to refute them, he said absolutely nothing. He made no effort to try and defend himself. Also interesting was the fact that the tipster had contacted me before he reached out to federal investigators. This enabled me to convince him to do an on-camera interview and allowed our viewers to hear first-hand his account of how the state's auto emissions test was allegedly manipulated at the expense of taxpayers and the environment."

Sherman said, "Environmental stories are natural, they can be very compelling for television. You can see natural beauty being polluted. They tend to have a story to them – often good guys and bad guys – heroes and villains – it plays like a classic story. When the bad guys become the villain and when you catch them doing it, well that's compelling."

Q. Your story deals with a fairly complex issue for television. How did you make it easier for viewers to
follow? 

Kalodimos said, "I would like to think we did explain it well, with carefully crafted writing, and excellent, illustrative photojournalism. My partner on the story, Phil Dunaway, used tasteful and appropriate effects that made the most out of the one jar of the TCE solvent we managed to obtain. We were always thinking of how to visualize something that you couldn't see, taste or smell... a challenge, but not impossible."

Parsons said, "Compared with other environmental stories I have told (for example, particulate matter pollution; river dredging; eco-terrorism), this series of reports was relatively straightforward in terms of story-telling. PennDOT dumped tons of oozy, gooey oil on a road. We shot it and tested it and showed results of both to our viewers. Pretty simple."

Making a complex and science-based story in a short amount of time, Setera said, was "no easy task. I tried to boil the issues down to the very basics and after I had come up with a script, I asked a couple people in the newsroom who were not familiar with the story to give it a read. They gave me some feedback which was very helpful because it allowed me to eliminate aspects of the story that were unnecessary and might have been too confusing to the average viewer."

Sherman added: "You have to simplify things as much as you can. You have to distill it as much as you can." He credits his station for allowing him not only the resources but the time to make things simple. One story ran seven minutes – an almost unheard of length in a typical television newscast.

Q. What were the sources you used (people, documents, reports, etc. ?
 Kalodimos said, "My notebooks contain everything from handwritten Post-It notes state officials happened to leave on original documents to somewhat damaged audio cassettes that served as the minutes at a public hearing. The cassettes had to be re-mastered for speed and audio clarity, but they provided an interesti)?ng insight into how long the problem had been festering. I also had a few off-the-record sources telling me where to look in big boxes of records – that always helps. At times there was so much caution and secrecy, I actually was driving up to mailboxes at night and leaving envelopes for a source. It was very Woodward-Bernstein."

Rokus said CNN "wanted to make sure we were getting the best science possible. I'd estimate we spent at least a month researching before we shot a single frame. We consulted countless experts both on and off camera and found reports published by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) invaluable."

Parsons said, "In determining the potential toxicity of MC- 70 and brine for use on roadways, we spoke with numerous experts; studied reports on file with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and other sources; and took a sample of the MC-70 to an environmental lab."

Setera said she relied on a variety of sources. "I made multiple public records requests to the DEP and EPA for documents reflecting any and all performance audits, monitoring and oversight of this program. I also spoke extensively with the tipster, along with automotive industry insiders familiar with the operation of the state's auto emissions program, as well as a whistleblower inside the DEP.

"But I'd have to say the initial tipster who called me was the most helpful. He gave me access to documents that confirmed some type of business relationship did indeed exist between himself and the manager at the state DEP. I was also given access to copies of cashed checks, a business proposal, internal e-mails within the DEP that were sent to him by the DEP manager, along with computer files and software which our tipster says he developed with the help of this state manager. These materials were eventually turned over to federal investigators by the tipster and have become part of the ongoing, federal investigation," Setera said.

Q. What advice would you give other television reporters who might want to do similar stories? Kalodimos said she had three points: "1. Do not be afraid of what seems like a technical issue, or something 'out of your league.' Chances are very good that an expert is willing to give you a thorough science tutorial. And, believe it or not, starting with a mere layman's understanding can help you explain the difficult material more effectively to viewers who are in the same boat. 2. Go back!!!!...look at property deeds, old hearings, old minutes. It was fascinating to learn how concerned people were with one of the contaminated springs 30 years before the TCE problem surfaced. This context helped me build a stronger story. "3. Be ready and prepared to get no official comment or cooperation. These days municipalities, even the feds, seem to have no qualms about just not playing ball at all on an issue. It's difficult for us to imagine telling a story without the traditional balance we are used to, but there are ways to be fair and skeptical without interviewing folks in suits."

CNN's Tokus said, "I would say it's similar to doing any other kind of television story – great characters and great pictures will be the keys to success. We were lucky in that we were able to find both in places being affected by climate change.

"I'd also advise to not underestimate the intelligence of your audience when it comes to science. We didn't shy away from trying (and hopefully succeeding) to explain the detailed science of climate change. It certainly helped that we had an hour to tackle the subject. As mentioned above, we also made sure to 'humanize' the science. All of the graphs, statistics and experts are much more meaningful when viewers can associate them with the fate of an entire country or the face of a cute polar bear."

Setera said, "As far as advice to other reporters who might want to do similar stories, I think it's worth taking the time to really educate yourself about how a program is supposed to work. Even though the focus for this story was on how the program had run amok, I thought it was important to learn how programs in other states work for comparison purposes.

"I also thought it was important to get educated about the program, learning the proper terminology to describe the equipment and the science involved. I discovered that by doing this, more people were willing to open up and provide me with information because I had made some kind of effort to learn about their world, so to speak," Setera said.

"Also, typically, stories like this one don't make for good television. But, you need to be persistent. I was eventually able to get our tipster to agree to do an on-camera interview if we agreed to hide his identity. The key is to try to get as much access and information from your tipster before they go to law enforcement because once he/she does go to law enforcement, then law enforcement will discourage them from cooperating with you."

Sherman urged other reporters to "argue on behalf of environmental journalism. Television often has a narrow view of what our viewers want." But when one taps into the potential power of a good environmental story, television reporters should continue to build on success. "If you do it once, you can do it twice and three times and four times. Argue to do more."

Finally, Parsons said, "If you are in a market with a substantial number of dirt or gravel roads, this is a story worth investigating. If you are in an area where oil and natural gas wells are active, there is a story for you. You will likely find that the amount of brine being used for road dust control is increasing in direct proportion to the amount of brine being produced in wells. In other words, roads in your area aren't getting any dustier. There probably aren't more dirt roads being built. The only explanation for the increase in brine being applied to roads is the increase in oil and gas production.

"As always with an environmental story, assess the potential impact on viewers before you take the story idea to your news director. Be ready to answer the question that a former news director of mine often asked: 'Is anybody dead?'"

Mike Dunne, assistant editor of the SEJournal, writes for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La.

 

Story links  
•CNN's 'Melting Point': www.cnn.com/CNN/Programs/ presents/index.melting.point.html

• WBZ's 'Car Inspection Corruption': http://cbs4boston.com/iteam/local_story_125211042.html 

• WTAE's 'Toxic Treatment': www.thepittsburghchannel. com/team4/5331654/detail.html • WBAL's 'Dirty Secret':www.thewbalchannel.com/ news/4797884/detail.html

• WGCU's 'Delicate Blooms':www.wgcu.org/earthedition_ detail.asp?id=1171

• WSMV's 'Dirt on Dickson Country' is no longer available online.

 

**From SEJ'a quarterly newsletter SEJournal Fall, 2006 issue.

 

 

MIKE DUNNE