Posts Tagged ‘USDA’


The flow of information: Reporting on water in the west

Abrahm Lustgarten, an energy and environment reporter at ProPublica, had a seat right on the battle lines of the Western Water Wars. Having previously lived in a small town on the Colorado River, he developed an awareness of the water scarcity problem, especially as the drought got worse.  After relocating to California, Lustgarten sought to bring his experience and long-standing interest in the topic to an investigative piece focused on the importance of water in the West.

Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica covers energy, environment, and most recently, the water wars in the Western U.S.

Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica covers energy, environment, and most recently, the water wars in the Western U.S.

His reporting led to a nine-part series called “Killing the Colorado,” which ran from May to July this year, and focused not only on the Centennial state but on issues in Arizona, Nevada (Las Vegas), and California. Lustgarten delved into federal subsidies for cotton under the Farm Bill, pollution problems at the Navajo Generation Station,  and a controversial “use it or lose it” law further enabling the misuse of water. Reporting the story was not easy; Lustgarten spent more than a year and a half collecting and requesting information, and learning an extensive amount about the history and laws surrounding water crises. “It was an enormous amount of information, like getting an informal master’s degree,” Lustgarten said.

The story began with “Holy Crop,” an in-depth look into how federal subsidies of cotton under the Farm Bill leads to water shortages, as the crop needs billions of gallons of water to be grown. Lustgarten did “everything under the sun” to obtain public records for the piece, he said, drawing upon court documents, litigation cases, land ownership deeds, peer review studies, and economic reporting under the Farm Bill. It was the latter documents that posed the greatest challenge, Lustgarten said. He filed a FOIA request to solicit records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Farm Bill and subsidy program, and waited more than 8 months to receive the information – and incomplete information at that.

lustgarten4

The USDA doesn’t release information that the public actually wants to know, said Lustgarten. His reports came back with generalized info about the number of subsidies per town and the amounts granted, but no information about the individuals who received the money. It was, all-in-all, a FOIA failure, according to Lustgarten. The most recent Farm Bill allowed USDA to withhold information, and there wasn’t enough time to take them to court to get the necessary documents. It’s not an unprecedented response from the USDA: the Farm Service Agency denies more FOIA requests than any other segment of the department (about ½ of the department’s total denials), basing most on confidential, personnel, and medical records exemptions.

Lustgarten also reached out to agencies on the state level, but ran into similar issues. In California, a state law is designed to protect utility customers, by keeping the identity of water users secret and collection info on irrigation water districts only, not the users (i.e. people and companies) who get the water. But the documents were not where the real story was. In this case, going into the field and engaging in face-to-face interviews proved most important.

Lustgarten mapped out 161,000 acres of cotton fields in Arizona, www.propublica.org

Lustgarten mapped out 161,000 acres of cotton fields in Arizona, www.propublica.org

“These stories are, in the end, analysis,” Lustgarten said. “You’ve got to do the deep reporting, and understand the issue or else your story will just be a superficial version. Ask yourself what you personally think about the story, and use that analysis rather than just direct information you are told.” For example, Lustgarten said, once he found out how water law tells farmers to use their resources in a way that is not always sustainable, he exercised his own judgement. He returned to his sources, and asked them, “If the law allowed you to use less water, would you?” Their affirmative answers added yet another layer of depth to the story.

The problem with analysis is that the readers don’t always agree with the journalist’s point of view. For the most part, Lustgarten’s story received great public feedback, with readers welcoming a new and different perspective and a solutions-based story. However, other readers found fault with Lustgarten’s analysis, some arguing cotton is less water-intensive than Lustgarten claimed, others pointing out discrepancies between the Arizona and California laws discussed in the story.

 

www.propublica.org

www.propublica.org

However, Lustgarten’s story did call attention to a growing problem, and invite discussion and debate in the community.  “Nothing is more important than water,” Lustgarten said, and finally this underappreciated resource, vital for the economy, environment, and human health, was brought into the spotlight. Here are couple methods Lustgarten used to make his story stand out.

Historical background

Lustgarten drew on the introduction and implementation of the Farm Bill over time to explain his story, and touched upon the history of the region’s 15-year-drought and environmental dry spell. He researched early Arizona township organizations and supply and demand of resources during wartime, alluding to Civil War practices and an 150-year-old report to Congress by John Wesley Powell.

Public documents

Lustgarten worked with over twenty groups, including state and federal agencies; from the California and Arizona Departments of Water Resources to the National Weather Service and Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, the information took up to three years to obtain. The main story these documents told were about money, Lustgarten said, the irony of the government charging individuals and companies less to use more water. To figure out what documents are best suited for the story, Lustgarten said he relied on government experts or lawyers, asking them what kind of state and federal documents were kept related to his topic of interest, and what the specific title and code of the document would be. He talked with FOIA officers at EPA and USDA, trying to identify which records would be most beneficial.

One-on-one reporting

Lustgarten can’t stress the human factor of investigative reporting enough. His one-on-one encounters with farmers, government officials (like the “Water Witch” of Las Vegas) and other members of the community assign a human face to the numbers behind the documents. And the natural landscape has a kind of emotional quality as well, as photographer Michael Friberg brought out in a series “A Wonder in Decline: The Disappearing Lake Powell in Pictures.”

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The short story

ProPublica compiled the main points from the series into a notecard-guide, shareable via social media. The shortened stories are posed as a solution-based Q&A, identifying the problems and using graphics, maps, and charts to illustrate statistics. The notecards are an informative way to draw in an audience with perhaps less time or knowledge to dedicate to the full series. Instead of cutting the reporting short, the “Need to Know” article caters to a larger audience who might not have followed the entire series. Most importantly, the notecards point to various solutions for the readers to deliberate amongst each other. And that is how these stories invite and inspire change.

Have you dealt with drought or reported on the water wars? Email amayrianne@spj.org or tweet @amayrianne about your experience.

Are we out of the woods yet? The FOIA fight with the U.S. Forest Service

Nature-lover or not, almost every child in America can recognize Smokey the Bear, the iconic ursine emblem of the U.S. Forest Service. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of efforts to recycle paper, or to prevent wildfires. When it comes to educational material and campaigning — things the Forest Service wants the public to know — communication is free-flowing. But it isn’t always that easy with the USFS; in fact, they are one of the most secretive agencies environmental reporters will encounter.

The U.S. Forest Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, oversees 193 million acres of forest, grasslands, wetlands, and lakes, including private, public and tribal lands. The agency, led by Chief Tom Tidwell, is organized into 9 regions, each with its own FOIA contact.  The USFS is responsible for preventing and responding to forest fires, managing over 1,000 campgrounds, and conducting research on ecosystems and climate change. It seems like there shouldn’t be a problem requesting documents and data related to these topics; as past SPJ President and current FOI Committee Chairman David Cuillier put it, the USFS doesn’t exactly protect national security secrets. But for some reason, the agency has been shutting the media out, forming a rift between scientists and journalists.

Regional Offices of the US Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/

Regional Offices of the US Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/

The USFS’s recent failure to provide material pivotal in journalist Rhiannon Fionn’s investigation of drinking water contaminants led to the agency being ‘awarded’SPJ’s 2014 Black Hole Award. Fionn told SPJ that she attempted to interview an expert USFS scientist for her story over the course of a year, but was repeatedly redirected to public information officials and eventually told she could only do a scripted interview, which would be reviewed by the Office of Ethics in Washington D.C. Fionn refused, calling the agency’s behavior overt censorship and a threat to the public’s right to know.

Email correspondence between journalist Rhiannon Fionn and USFS scientist Dr. Dennis Lemly, as published in Coal Ash Chronicles.

Email correspondence between journalist Rhiannon Fionn and USFS scientist Dr. Dennis Lemly, as published in Coal Ash Chronicles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem is, Fionn is not the only journalist who has encountered this roadblock. Four years earlier, Society of Environmental Journalists member Christy George shared a similar experience. As George was sitting down to interview a USFS scientist from Oregon, he received a phone call from the head communications official in D.C., ordering him to end the interview. There was never any explanation, George says, even though she had requested the interview days earlier and gotten it pre-approved by his supervisors. Read about her experience here.

Photographers, videographers, and documentarians were further threatened by imprecise wording on a set of rules from 2014 that would require a $1,500 permit for shooting projects on National Forest Wilderness land. Although aimed at commercial companies, journalists and other media groups feared for their First Amendment rights and protested for a specific exclusion. Chief Tidwell sent out a memo to agency leaders reaffirming journalism as a public service and giving the green light for news coverage “including, but not limited to breaking news, b-roll, feature news, news documentaries, long-form pieces, background, blogs, and any other act that could be considered related to news-gathering.” Encouraging, but the real issue is the weak and ineffective media policies that make this kind of miscommunication possible.

The Center for Science and Democracy agreed in their 2015 Government Transparency report , shaming the Department of Agriculture as a whole with C- in media policy, and a D in social media.  The USDA has not updated its general communications policy since 2003, the report says, and falls short of providing access to drafts and revisions, the explicit right of last review, and whistle-blower protection. “‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — one anonymous USDA scientist says regarding the agency’s social media policy, which also stifles scientists’ rights to discuss research and hold personal views.

The Center for Science and Democracy's 2015 Report: Grading Government Transparency: Scientists' Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, http://www.ucsusa.org

The Center for Science and Democracy’s 2015 Report: Grading Government Transparency: Scientists’ Freedom to Speak (and Tweet) at Federal Agencies, http://www.ucsusa.org

One doesn’t need to try too hard to find examples of Forest Service’s shortcomings. While the up-to-date budget performance information is explicitly listed right under the agency’s “about” tab, the other reports about regulations and policies were unavailable; the page listed as “under construction” when I attempted to access it earlier this week. As for the USFS FOIA site, it either has not been updated in a while, or all of the “frequently requested reports” are truly from 2008.

By no means does this suggest journalists should give up on requesting information from the Forest Service. But it helps to have some background information on the agency’s track record and to be prepared for common challenges faced in making a FOIA request. Here are some important takeaways from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Freedom of Information report.

– The USDA receives about 20,000 FOIA requests per year, 10 percent of which are for the Forest Service. In 2014, the Forest Service received 1,939 new requests. Of those 1,939 requests, 1,889 were processed. Yet only 825 (45%) were granted the full requested information, 601 (32%) were partially granted, and 248 (13%) were either withdrawn or referred to other agencies or departments.

– Reasons for denials: The most popular denial reason during 2014 was cited as “no records.” The most frequently cited FOIA exemption was Exemption 6, which deals with personal privacy interests. The Forest Service claimed that the information was protected because it dealt with ownership of historic and/or archaeological resources.

– Processing time: The average time to process a simple request is 27 days, whereas more complicated requests take about 50 days. Expedited requests are processed within 30 days (the average being 13 days).  Backlogs are common, the ten oldest outstanding requests are between 2 and 3 years old.

– Resources: From 2010 to 2013, the Forest Service maintained a staff of about 75 full-time FOIA employees. But in 2014, the number of staff  suddenly dropped to 25. Processing requests cost the agency anywhere between $2.5 and $3 million per year from 2010 to 2013, although litigation fees never surpassed $6,000. However, last year, $25,000 was spent on litigation, whereas only $70,000 was spent on processing requests.

– Record Keeping: The USDA adopted a new internal online database in 2011 to keep track of public records requests. This information is used to submit to the Department of Justice for their annual report and to record and determine the status of FOI requests. Anyone can submit a written request for information pertaining to themselves and their individual request.

The USFS FOIA Service Center can be contacted at 14 Independence Ave SW, Mailstop 1143, in Washington D.C., via fax to 202-649-1167, or via email to wo_foia@fs.fed.us.

Do you have a Forest Service experience to share? Tweet @amayrianne or email amayrianne@spj.org. 

http://www.fs.fed.us/

http://www.fs.fed.us/

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