Archive for the ‘Story Ideas’ Category


Shaking things up: Michael Corey on reporting earthquakes in fracking’s boom time

“And as we all know, Oklahoma has more earthquakes than California,” the seismologist said. But until Michael Corey from the Center for Investigative Reporting attended the American Geophysical Union conference last December, he hadn’t known that. Corey, who had previously covered earthquakes in his home state of California, was shocked. He had a new story.

Using earthquake catalogs and science scripts from the US Geological Survey, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, and the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, Corey mapped seismic activity against state boundary lines. He discovered a surprising truth. Over the last decade, Oklahoma, a state with historically few earthquakes, had progressively become three times more active than California.

By Michael Corey, Center for Investigative Reporting

By Michael Corey, Center for Investigative Reporting

See the interactive map.

The question was why. In Corey’s original article from February, he uncovered that the likely cause of the earthquakes was an increase in injection wells, underground tanks where the polluted water from fracking is stored. But the oil companies were “a brick wall” and denied any responsibility, he said, so he relied on scientific studies to look for answers.

The majority of scientists and seismologists were incredibly cooperative, Corey says. They wanted the data to be used and made public, and helped to walk him through the interpretation of the information. However, that wasn’t the case with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, where both the interim director and lead seismologist could not be reached for comment. Corey also relied on court documents, in which a resident sued an oil company, building codes, and state emergency plans to report his story.

One problem was that “induced seismic activity (aka human-caused) is omitted from the USGS hazards model because the agency hasn’t decided how to quantify the risk. Meanwhile, Building Seismic Safety Councils rely on these models to update their code requirements every five years. With old or inaccurate information, Oklahoma’s architecture is left vulnerable. In this case the information is there, but no one really knows what do with it.

Listening to the Science: An Unconventional Way to Use Data in Your Reporting  

Corey decided to listen to the data. In a radio broadcast story debuted this weekend, Corey used an audio track to simulate the increase in earthquakes over time. He downloaded earthquake catalog data from the last decade from the Northern California Earthquake Data Center, and translated each data point through a synthesizer. Now each earthquake, represented by a chime-like “ping,” could be heard and imagined, different pitches and frequencies corresponding to stronger or weaker seismic activity.

It was a good alternative for a radio story, in which documents and data could be read aloud but not visualized. By 2014, the audio track is a constant clanging of bells and chimes, illustrating the severity of Oklahoma’s earthquakes. This, coupled with interviews, brought life to a story built primarily on geological data and scientific jargon.

“For the radio story we had to put more emphasis on the human voice,” Corey explained.  “With no documents or figures to show, we instead set scenes and characters, and bring in people who have experienced earthquakes.”

Listen to the full broadcast here.

Corey offers some advice to environmental journalists looking to report similar stories.

Michael Corey, www.revealnews.org

Michael Corey, www.revealnews.org

Get involved. Corey got the idea for his story attending his first geoscience conference. Not only do conferences and events like this generate ideas, they will also link you to important sources.

Seek a second opinion. Scientists, like journalists, rely on multiple sources before stating something as fact. Peer reviewed journals are your best bet, says Corey. This is especially true with oil company stories, where companies employ full-time researchers whose findings may be biased.

Become tech-savvy. In addition to the audio synthesizer track, Corey created visualizations and completed data analysis using tools like Quantum GIS and Python.

Stay modest.You’re not going to understand everything, so follow up and read about it. Show interest in the topic, but be careful not to write before you understand the issue. You could end up getting a lot wrong,” he warns.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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Know NOAA: Freedom of information story ideas from the air and sea

“NOAA reaches from the bottom of the sea to the surface of the sun, and touches every aspect of our daily lives,” a 40-minute introductory video (found online) instructs new agency employees. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posts an incredible amount of its employee expectations and administrative orders online, although locating the information requires patience, curiosity, and a deep dive though hyperlinks and sister sites.

But NOAA makes sure FOIA is something its employees learn about early on. Transparency is one of the few policies that has its own site: complete with training and tutorials for employees, contacts for the media, (actual FOI officers, not just media relations) and the verbatim administrative order complete with a list of descriptive terms and detailed information of who can reject an FOI request, and why.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator since March 6, 2014, reaffirms NOAA’s policy to open information in an introductory video.

Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator since March 6, 2014, reaffirms NOAA’s policy to open information in an introductory video.

In 2007, NOAA implemented a new rule closing the gap between scientists and the media. DAO 219-1, gives researchers and scientists explicit permission to share the results, aka “Fundamental Research Communications” of scientific and engineering research with the public, without prior NOAA approval. This includes media interviews, DAO 219-1 states, which can, but don’t have to be, approved and facilitated by public affairs. All information must be “on the record,” although employees can decline the initial interview.

For newshounds, it would seem as though NOAA had thrown a bone to the dogs. But even five years later, the Society of Environmental Journalists noted despite the open information policy, there were problems with additional policy guidelines and a lack of enforcement.

“That guidance document itself is problematic. Section 8, ‘Official Communication with the News Media,’ requires advance approval by the public affairs office whenever NOAA staff scientists give interviews or otherwise make statements about their work. The policy further generally requires public affairs officials to sit in on all interviews unless other arrangements are approved by the public affairs staff.These sorts of limitations on scientists’ communications with the news media (and through the media, the public) are simply unacceptable in a free society.” 

NOAA responded, stating an intention to work with counsel at the Department of Commerce (which oversees the agency and implements the DAO) to determine whether changes would be necessary. The most current version is here.

But here’s one issue with NOAA: There’s too much information, at least too much to sift through to find an easy answer to my preliminary question. As an environmental journalist, what can I learn from them? What kind of information do they provide, and what kind of stories can I write using the information? The bottom of the sea to the surface of the sun…it’s kind of a wide range. So what does NOAA actually do?

noaa.gov

noaa.gov

According to Administrator Sullivan and the NOAA intro video, NOAA’s purpose is to

  • maintain commercial fishing so fisherman can maintain a livelihood (includes aquaculture)
  • keep environment clean (through work with the US Coast Guard during oil spills)
  • maintain natural resource damage assessments, which assess damage and issue regulations regarding natural resources such as shorelines, vegetation, fisheries, animal life
  • collect remediation from responsible companies to restore environment after oil spill
  • provide climate forecasts to help agriculture determine which crops to plant and when
  • monitor hurricanes and extreme weather events and notify and prepare communities
  • help satellite operators prepare for disruption during solar weather forecasts
  • protect endangered species
  • protect life and property and enhances national economy
  • monitor aquatic areas for pesticide levels
Organization of NOAA's Departments, from noaa.gov

Organization of NOAA’s Departments, from noaa.gov

Recent stories citing NOAA include updates oil spill near Santa Barbara, Calif., and Greenwire’s expose of seafood fraud in aquaculture. But if there’s one thing NOAA has, it’s a wealth of climatic, environmental and economic data, including easily overlooked resources like satellite imagery and arctic ice report cards.  The potential for stories is endless, and maybe it’s impossible to cover them all. See the chart below for publication dates and your own story ideas.

NOAA/NCDC Climate Data and Services Daily
NOAA/NCDC World Ocean Database Quarterly
NOAA/NCDC Earth System Monitor The Earth System Monitor is a free publication that reports on NOAA environmental data and information programs, projects, and activities. We no longer have a mailing list. However, you can subscribe to the ESM RSS feed and be notified immediately when the e-version is published. Semi-Annually
NOAA/NMFS Fishery Market News Quarterly, Monthly, Weekly and Daily
NOAA/NMFS U.S. Foreign Trade in Fishery Products Monthly and Annual
NOAA/NMFS Recreational Fisheries Statistics Annual
NOAA/NMFS Commercial Fisheries Statistics Annual
NOAA/NMFS Fisheries Statistics of the US Annual
NOAA/NOS CO-OPS Tides and Currents Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NOS Web Mapping Portal to Real-Time Coastal Observations and NOAA Forecasts Daily
NOAA/NWS NOAAWatch
(NOAA Storms and Hazards Portal)
Daily
NOAA/NWS Weather Forecast Four times daily: 4 am; 11 am;
4 pm; & 10 pm (local time)
NOAA/NWS Warnings, watches, alerts & advisories Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Graphical Forecasts Daily
NOAA/NWS National Maps Updated twice daily
NOAA/NWS National Radar Mosaic Sectors Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Air Quality Forecast Guidance Shows Air Quality Guidance as 1-hr and 8-hr ozone concentration averages for the N.E. US updated twice daily.
NOAA/NWS Preliminary Climate Data Daily
NOAA/NWS Hydrologic Observations and Forecasts Available on a real time basis
NOAA/NWS Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) network Daily
NOAA/NWS Graphical Airman ‘s Meteorological Advisory (G-AIRMET) Updated every 6 hours as required by forecast aviation hazards
NOAA/NWS Hourly Multi-Sensor Precipitation Estimate Web-Based Service Hourly
NOAA/OAR National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Daily

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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Big oil, bad air, good reporting: How InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song stuck with it (and so can you)

For three days, InsideClimate News reporter Lisa Song sat rifling through public records documents in the file-reading room of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The unwavering eyes of a government-appointed paralegal watched her every move, making sure Song did not copy or try to smuggle the papers.

“It was like having a babysitter,” Song said when we met up at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia.

The problem was the records Song was reviewing were supposed to be public — available to anyone — but a miscommunication between her FOIA case record agent and the TCEQ led to Song flying from Boston to Austin to read the information. She could have copied the documents and returned to Boston, but would have been expected to pay $3,400, she said.

Song was looking at communications among Texas state toxicologists, in order to report on a story about the state’s recently weakened chemical guidelines and the potential ramifications on air quality.

The eventual story, a year-and-a-half-long series published in collaboration with the Weather Channel and the Center for Public Integrity, was titled “Big Oil, Bad Air.” The story exposed major air pollution within the Eagle Ford Shale, a 400-mile-long stretch of oil and gas drilling sites.

Companies are required to report certain air emissions to environmental agencies under the Clean Air Act. But Texas doesn’t require all of the production facilities to file emissions data with the state; instead, they allowed a “self-audit” policy. However, using air permits granted to some of the other companies, Song and her team discovered other sites had permission to release almost 190 tons of toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde every year.

It wasn’t an easy investigation, Song recalls. Texas is an “oil and gas state,” so even government agencies are dealing with financial conflicts of interest, as agency leaders such as those at the TCEQ are appointed by the governor himself and other officials have financial incentives to support the industry.  She and her colleagues filed over fifty open records requests for investigation reports, oil and gas pollution inventories, enforcement actions, agency communications and personnel files, a dozen of which were state attorney general’s office because the TCEQ wanted the documents withheld, she said.

GROWING PROBLEM

It’s becoming a growing problem, according to Song, and not just in Texas. Regulations and disclosure rules vary among states, but environmental journalists are meeting a lack of transparency from agencies across the board. Face-to-face interviews with EPA officials are almost nonexistent, and email is the preferred method of communication; A reporter who tries to call a source at the EPA will most likely be shuttled through public information officers and media relations. FOIA requests can take a year or more to be granted. Song spent three months trying to get an interview with EPA, who in this story should have stepped in when the Texas state agency failed. And in her personal experience, the USDA and U.S. Forest Service are even more elusive.

But oil companies are the worst. Although she didn’t have to deal with the trade secret problem associated with most of these oil-and-gas stories, she faced backlash and allegations from the public relations arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Song’s colleague David Hasemyer also faced challenges. Officials from the TCEQ and the Railroad Commission of Texas (also involved in the story) refused to grant interviews. At one point Hasemyer was berated by an agency spokesperson for attempting to call TCEQ inspectors at their homes and was physically stopped from approaching a commission chairman at a public meeting.

Fortunately the journalists prevailed, even leading to an air pollution monitor being installed in nearby Karnes County, Texas, and a criminal inquiry into the actions of two inspectors named in the story. It’s a cautionary tale for other states that are eager for fracking’s rewards, Song and her colleagues wrote in a report to Investigative Reporters and Editors, who in addition to SPJ, nominated the story for an award.

One of Song and Hasemyer’s infographics was awarded a 2014 Sigma Delta Chi Award from SPJ.

Song shares how they did it:

  • Documents:
    • Campaign contribution disclosure statements from the Texas Ethics Commission
    • Civil lawsuits on fracking and air pollution.
    • State legislation that aimed to strengthen or weaken air pollution regulations.
    • Science and engineering studies about fracking and public health published in peer-reviewed journals, conference proceedings and government reports.
    • Transcripts and videos from public hearings
    • New source review air permits
  • Interviews
    • 12 trips to shale drilling regions in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana
    • Scientists and engineers from universities, consulting firms, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and industry
    • Most public officials and industry representatives refused to speak on the phone or to meet in person, and only answered questions via email
    • Residents in Eagle Ford affected by pollution
  • Data Analysis

Reporters don’t need to live in Texas to replicate this story for their own hometown or beat. Refer to your state or region’s database of emission releases and review the Clean Air Act for more information.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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Know your hometown: Small stories make the biggest difference.

The majority of my posts this summer will focus on federal environmental agencies, laws and policies. However, for most journalists, we are far more likely to report local news: the pollution-producing factory that came to town, the sudden increase in bacteria in a nearby lake, or the decrease in funding for science programs at the city’s middle school.

The stories that hit us and our audience the hardest. The ones we remember.

I grew up in Merrimack, a moderately sized suburb in southern New Hampshire known for moose, maple syrup, and New England’s Anhueser-Busch brewery. I remember the first environmental story I heard about my hometown, even though it occurred more than a decade ago, when I was 12 and more concerned with reading Tiger Beat than the newspaper. As I think about the story now, I wonder how I would go about reporting it, now knowing the resources and information available.

Merrimack, NH

Merrimack, NH

The Scoop

In March 2004, a beaver dam on private land was mysteriously demolished. Within a week, four other dams, these on town-owned conservation land, were also destroyed.  The Merrimack police partnered with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department to locate the suspect responsible for destroying the dams, a crime that carried a fine of $5,000. As a result of the lost dams, beavers abandoned the wetland area, the water level sank by four feet, and fish and bird populations were threatened. Environmental officials predicted it would take two years for the ecosystem to recover.

Read the original full story from the NH Business Review here.

While it’s not the hard-hitting news breakthrough that would shock a nation, my town reacted. I remember residents who lived near wetlands forming a makeshift neighborhood watch committee to prevent further damage to dams. Others got to work patching the dams to reverse the damage. School kids adopted the beaver as their favorite animal. People suddenly cared. The community came together and created an online forum (high-tech in those days!) to share updates until the suspect turned himself in.

American Beaver by blog.nwf.org

American Beaver by blog.nwf.org

Reporting Today

But what if this story had happened in 2015? How would I go about reporting it, who would I contact, what documents would I request, and what would my impact be? As an experiment (I am half-scientist, after all), I decided to see if I could recreate the story and retrace the journalists’ steps using public information available now.

Step 1: The Police Report

My first step in investigating this local crime begins with those first on the scene: police. Merrimack Police Department keeps a well-maintained website, which includes PDFs of daily call logs, up-to-date press releases, and even a map illustrating where each category of incident (vandalism, in the case of the beavers) incident occurs. A request for the suspect’s criminal record if convicted from the NH State Police Department may prove difficult, costly, and time-consuming, but could also make for an interesting story.

However, nothing outweighs speaking to the actual officers: Merrimack lists contact information for general inquiries, as well as emails for captains and lieutenants. As for the police report or the arrest record for the suspect, these require an in-person trip to the station and can be complicated by Fifth Amendment rights during an open investigation.

Step 2: The Law

So…the we called the police. What now? Destroying beaver dams sounds cruel, but is it illegal? A simple Google search (literally, “NH law beaver dams”) turns up the original wording of the official-sounding “TITLE XVIII FISH AND GAME CHAPTER 210 FUR-BEARING ANIMALS Beaver Section 210:9.” Past cases and violators can be found through the NH State Court’s new E-court Project, although the system was implemented only a few years ago and doesn’t include the 2004 case.

Step 3: Moving Up the Ladder

The law is regulated at the state level through the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.  A quick glance through the Department’s website uncovers an interactive map that illustrates state-owned wildlife conservation areas and a copy of the state’s mandated wildlife action plan listing policies for land and resource management, as well as research and conservation plans for animals like beavers. The Law Enforcement Division’s mission statement is promising to those seeking information, citing an “obligation to respond to the increasing public demands in a timely and respectful manner. To be successful, the mission must be administered without prejudice, always mindful that in the execution of their duties they act not for themselves, but for the public. The enforcement division’s patrol map also names the particular official responsible for Merrimack (area 41).

Step 4: Follow Up and Impact

Don’t let the investigation stop here. A look into annual police reports or statistics from other towns or the state police can uncover patterns and elevate the story to a state or regional level. Or maybe there’s no larger meaning, but at least checking can add some extra practice in requesting and locating information.

Your Turn!

How would you report the story differently in your own hometown? Who else would you contact, or what other information would you seek? Have you encountered a particular office or agency  that was difficult to cooperate with? Share your own hometown story in the comments section here or email me or tweet @amayrianne.

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

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