News that oozes: Finding the local implications in a national environmental project

When the water gets really low in my neighborhood creek, a lovely ooze from the creek bed becomes apparent.

I’m not sure what the ooze is or from whence it comes. Part of me doesn’t want to know.

Two sewer lines run along the creek, one at least 50 years old and one about 30 years old. The older line is slowly being replaced, and the work will arrive soon in the neighborhood greenway, ripping out walkways, trees and underbrush as the backhoes do their thing.

So when The New York Times published a massive, nationwide, data-rich
recently, called “Toxic Waters,” I was fascinated. And when pundits on Twitter called for local news organizations or independent journalists to delve into the state-by-state data, I was further intrigued.

Dan Gillmor, who wrote “We The Media,” tried to shame local news organizations with this note on Twitter:

“Local journos in **every** state could/should folo NYT water investigation; few will because of idiotic not-invented-here syndrome in media.”

It’s not as simple as that.

Don’t discount this post as an apologia for news organizations or citizen reporters; take it instead as an acknowledgement and reminder of the huge hurdles faced when taking a huge data dump local, and the need for real, feet-on-the-street reporting. Data dumps are great things, and combined with reporting, truth will out, especially on stories that ooze, instead of break.

But we all should know by now that data can mislead without reporting.

“Numbers are an interesting thing and they can tell many different stories depending on how you look at them,” said the representative of the N.C. Division of Water Quality who responded to the New York Times package.

Herewith, some hurdles for local people, in trying to build upon the excellent work by the Times:

  • “Fishing expeditions” in newsrooms rarely get time and money these days. Sometimes reporting needs to happen to determine whether there is a story, and what the story is. And even for alternative news organizations like Spot.Us, time and funding for those fishing expeditions are difficult, because pitches for funding must be specific in promising certain results.
  • Often, the real story is in the null spaces, the blank places on the map, the industries that are not regulated, self-regulated or unnoticed by the state agencies who shared data with The New York Times. In a quick overview of the beautiful N.C. map by the Times of regulated entities and violations, I saw no indication of violations at the Eastern North Carolina hog farms. (They might be there, but I couldn’t find them easily.) I saw no indications of violations near the coal-ash fields right next to Mountain Island Lake, the drinking supply for the City of Charlotte. Does that mean there are no problems in those spots? Only deeper, expensive, local reporting will determine that. And it’s a fishing expedition.
  • Finding context and reading with a critical eye are rare skills that take time. The massive amount of work by The New York Times on this project cannot be quickly interpreted and localized because merely reading all the source material and comments takes time. It’s rare for local reporters and editors to have that time during their paid work hours, and it’s rare for “citizen journalists” to have the time either. Plus the mass of information can be intimidating. File it under “fishing expedition,” to read some day.
  • Public finding and aggregation of related stories and documents is not easy for the “citizen journalists” and others who have time to dig deep. Readers of the Times’ piece on Sept. 12 contributed 478 comments so far, some with relevant links to other sources of information. While some comments are labeled “Editors’ Selections,” or “Readers’ Recommendations,” (great features), there’s no public, easy way to aggregate all those links and other related stories, such as work done by USA Today in 2008, “Overflows cost sewer system $35 million in fines.” Further, locally, N.C. documents related to enforcement are often available only in PDF, and documents and stories that give context are not readily available to citizen journalists without deep web searching, available through university databases or expensive Lexis/Nexis. This is a key point: People who work or study at universities can easily forget that the regular “citizen journalist” does not have free access to the deep databases available through universities and libraries.
  • The problems and solutions for each dot on The New York Times map are complex. One example from memory and a wee bit of Google research: The tiny mountain town of Saluda was sued by the American Canoe Association in the early 2000s for repeatedly violating Clean Water Act standards. The town’s sewer treatment plant was failing, and it needed money to fix the plant. Paying big fines or court costs and settlements would not further the goal of fixing the plant. Eventually, the town received a Clean Water Bond grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center to fix the problem. So questions for today: Do the bonds still exist? How many other small towns face similar issues? How much would be the total cost of fixing the state’s sewer-plant issues, where will that money come from and how will it be awarded?

A few suggestions for overcoming those hurdles:

  • Citizen journos/bloggers can go on fishing expeditions, becoming the first filters through the data or on the street or by the streams. This concept is championed by the good people at The Sunlight Foundation, and they provide and fund many tools for individuals to do this work. Sadly, it appears that many passionate media consumers would rather make comments on existing stories instead of delving into the data to find trends and story leads. Over time, perhaps this trend will change.
  • Public libraries could play a role in aggregation and perhaps training and access to the databases available in the deep web. While excellent tools like Publish2 have been developed, this kind of work needs to be the work of public institutions, not just private companies. How can that work be funded? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • We can all acknowledge that this work takes time and a different sort of critical thinking, and our collective attention span has grown exceedingly short. Slow, deep, critical analysis of data and documents is out of style, as we all succumb to a fast-rushing stream of information through new sources of news. Gillmor’s call on Twitter for local reporting came on or shortly after the day of publication, and came amid calls by Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen. Their attention (and ours?) appears to have moved on.

Hope springs eternal. Many individuals have become increasingly interested in the quality of what they put in their bodies, and the long, searchable tail of the internet has given us new tools to share ideas and information. I wrote a quick post in early 2008 after hearing that Dasani had been getting its bottled water from Charlotte’s drinking water supply. That old quick post still gets readers and serves as a reminder that we don’t have alternatives for clean municipal water supplies, because the stuff in plastic bottles is actually from those supplies.

So here’s hoping that individuals go forth and investigate. And here’s hoping we all acknowledge and adjust to the new reality: Many established news organizations do not have the resources to do the work for us. Perhaps we all can find ways to help.


One response to “News that oozes: Finding the local implications in a national environmental project

  1. Hi Andria,

    Great post. It would be great if we could help people collaborate across the board and with NYT to expand the project.

    I’ve added some ideas in the Wired Journalists forum.

    Also, your post is now featured on the Wired Journalists home page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s