Reporters share insights on chemical spill with WVU students
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – April Kaull remembers where she was Jan. 9 when she saw Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s tweet urging residents in southern West Virginia counties not to use their tap water.
“I was live on the air,” said Kaull, a West Virginia Media news anchor who is based at WOWK-TV.
Kaull and others jumped into action, trying to find answers during a short news break.
“That isn’t the sort of tweet you see all the time,” she said.
Kaull knew right then, as she broke the news to her audience during the evening broadcast, that this wasn’t just any story.
But at the time, she didn’t realize just how bad it would get.
Monday night the West Virginia University School of Journalism hosted “From Beats to Tweets: Media Coverage of the Elk River Spill” in the Mountainlair ballrooms.
The event opened discussion of how local journalists used traditional and new reporting methods to cover the Freedom Industries chemical leak and ongoing water crisis.
Along with Kaull, the panel, sponsored by Ogden Newspapers, included The Daily Mail’s Dave Boucher; The Charleston Gazette’s David Gutman; West Virginia Public Radio’s Ashton Marra; documentary photographer Roger May, who was commissioned by The Guardian newspaper to show the crisis aftermath; and West Virginia Wesleyan College English professor Eric Waggoner, whose essay, originally titled “Elemental,” documents his frustration with the leak.
Emily Hughes Corio, SOJ teaching assistant professor, moderated the panel.
After crude MCHM leaked from Freedom Industries’ tanks into the Elk River, many on the panel said traditional reporting techniques got them some answers.
Gutman remembered doggedly calling the Centers for Disease Control, questioning the 1-part-per-million level for safe drinking water.
“That’s convenient,” Gutman said. “It’s a nice, round number.”
Gutman called the office time and time again after learning this measurement for safe drinking water, hoping to talk to a scientist to get some answers. Then, when he saw a tweet saying pregnant women should find their water sources elsewhere, he called the CDC director at his Atlanta home.
After it appeared online and in the paper that the director told him it was a private number and to go through the press office, Gutman’s calls were returned.
Boucher agreed with Gutman there was push back from agencies on getting information. He recalled filing various Freedom of Information Act requests, only to have them continuously put on the back burner. Boucher decided to push back himself.
“What are you hiding?” he recalled asking one organization. “And I had the information the next day.”
“Transparency is a word that I would in no way shape or form associate with covering the chemical leak and ensuing water crisis,” Kaull said.
But traditional boots-on-the-ground reporting wasn’t all that was used to cover this ongoing story.
Many panelists found out about the chemical leak via social media and continued to use the tools to report, inform and engage the community.
Marra said for the first time, audience members engaged her through her professional Twitter account, responding to her water crisis posts.
“That was the first time that social media became a direct link for me into our audience,” she said.
But they also shared roadblocks with new reporting tools, as well.
“It can be hard sometimes to verify the information you receive through social media,” Boucher said.
He remembers being sent reports, unable to independently corroborate data, and seeing photos and videos of sketchy tap water, unable to determine if it was authentic.
Journalism School Dean Maryanne Reed said she hoped journalism students who attended the panel realize that it’s an industry still worth pursuing.
“I would love for their hearts to burn with the desire to be journalists and to tell truth – to tell the truth, to seek the truth … I want to reveal wrongdoing in my community. I want to inform the public when things are happening. This is still a job worth doing,” she said. “And, I get to do it using so many new tools.”
Freshman and Clarksburg native Will Dean found the panel exciting.
“I thought that as someone who wants to get into the field that it was informative of the techniques I’ll need,” he said.
Dean learned he needs to “tweet things other than cats” and learn how to be more persistent.
“Don’t give up on a story when it gets hard,” he said.
The complete discussion will air later this spring on Public Radio.