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By DON CORRIGAN
A popular ad slogan for city tourism is “St. Louis has it all from A to Z.” That’s certainly true when it comes to hazardous waste issues or land, air and water pollution. It’s not hard to find environmental tales from the St. Louis region that grab my students’attention and elicit incredulity.
A journalism professor in St. Louis can talk about dioxin at Times Beach, lead smelters in Herculaneum, a creek on fire across the Mississippi River near the Sauget chemical works, or the dangerous radioactive waste pile near a smoldering landfill west of Lambert International Airport.
Soon students will be asking these kinds of questions:
- How can a waste oil hauler get away with spraying roads of an entire town with a dioxin concoction?
- What prompts a state legislature to pass laws to immunize a lead company from contamination lawsuits?
- When does a landfill operator get sanctioned for allowing a landfill fire to smolder for months near a site containing radiation?
These are questions that can inspire students to research and write their own investigative stories. The local aspect of the stories propels a personal interest in the environmental issues. Knowing that these stories can be located in the students’ own backyards – sometimes literally – gives them a special urgency.
Two things become apparent right away as these questions arise. First, there is no textbook available to cover all these local and state issues. Second, no professor or journalist can be prepared to answer all of the surrounding complex questions with absolute certainty.
My own answer to these problems was to invite experts to my classroom every week to address a host of local environmental issues, and then to feed those exchanges into my own textbook, just published this April. The book, “Environmental Missouri: Issues and Sustainability — What You Need to Know,” can offer a blueprint for other professors who want to create their own local guides to environmental issues.
Start with those in the know
I began by finding experts to address tough questions on issues I wanted to include in my book. I invited scientists, attorneys and activists to my classroom to discuss topics ranging from smog, ozone, PCBs, CAFOs, GMOs, transportation of nuclear waste and more.
These sessions with key players on the environmental scene happened every Friday in my Environmental Journalism and Communication class, which meets three times a week. Since each session lasts 50 minutes, field trips to pertinent environmental sites have not been an option, but students inspired by our regular Friday “expert sessions” made their own field trips.
On these trips, the students did interviews and took pictures of power plant stacks, lead smelters, hazardous waste sites and habitats degraded by invasive species. These all became part of their completed story assignments, and some of the material – with appropriate attribution – was incorporated into my book to be used for future classes at Webster University.
In addition, the experts’ classroom visits provided the fodder for a Q&A section that accompanies every topic in the environmental book. The actual classroom question-and-answer sessions provided students with practice in using a press conference situation to maximum advantage.
Among the classroom visitors:
- Jeff Ettling, curator of aquatics and herpetology at the St. Louis Zoo, who talked about efforts to save Ozark hellbender salamanders suffering from polluted waterways.
- Kay Drey, co-founder of Missouri Coalition for the Environment, who talked about her years of monitoring rail transports of radioactive waste from the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident.
- Sue Gustafson, past president of the Audubon Society of Missouri, who talked about fending off encroachments on state and federal parks and designating Important Bird Areas.
‘Show me…’ a textbook publisher
Once I had the material for a textbook, the next step was finding a sympathetic publisher. That can be a hurdle, but there is always self-publishing and the Web. In my case, I was fortunate to have a local St. Louis publisher, Reedy Press, which had published two of my previous books, “Show Me ... Natural Wonders” and “Show Me ... Nature’s Wrath.”
Reedy Press was willing to work with me because I had a track record for meeting deadlines, and doing my own marketing and book presentations.
Don’t expect to get rich on this kind of local publishing. But these books are not strictly classroom fare, and I have traveled the state of Missouri for signings, presentations and sales for general audiences in the case of all three books. These experiences have been invaluable, and have provided a little pocket change beyond the usual gas and hotel costs.
I also use the books in two other courses I teach as part of my university’s outdoor/environmental journalism certificate: an outdoor/nature writing course and another on reporting natural disasters.
Most important, these excursions give me “focus groups” for feedback on my work and public opinion on environmental issues. They also give me plenty of incredible stories to take back to my students on state environmental concerns, such as personal encounters with invasive Asian Carp to testimonials and how climate change is affecting Show-Me State farming.
All of this can be quite enjoyable, informative and, at times, humbling. I believe these “road trip” book experiences also can make for a better environmental writer and teacher of environmental journalism.
Peter Dykstra, SEJ member and publisher of DailyClimate.org, was kind enough to provide a review blurb for the jacket of my new book, commenting favorably on its use of science, history and related journalism. He said he “just wished there were 49 more books like it” for those who do not live in Missouri.
There could easily be a book for each state or region – and “Environmental Missouri” could provide a template for how to get the job done. Environmental journalism professors are in a unique position to author guides to topics that are close to home, in part by using their classrooms as focal points for generating material with student inquiry and invitations to local experts.
Don Corrigan has served for more than 30 years as a professor of journalism at Webster University in St. Louis. He has written several books, including the new guide, “Environmental Missouri: Issues and Sustainability – What You Need to Know” (Reedy Press).
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2014. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.