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Nancy Smith

Florida Media Need to Crank Up Coverage of Water Crises

August 27, 2013 - 6:00pm

Two governors, two viewpoints, one disappointing job covering the story of the day.

Why did Florida choose to sue Georgia two weeks ago, the day after federal authorities declared the Apalachicola oyster fishery a resource disaster area? Duhhh ... We dunno!

But how come Florida Gov. Rick Scott said negotiations between the states have broken downand Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said, wait a minute, I thought we had a deal?

We don't know entirely, but probably we should by now, according to a thought-provoking story out Tuesday in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), abimonthly magazine for journalism professionals.

Author Susannah Nesmith's analysis wasn't brutal, but she said the story a reader gets depends very much on which state he lives in. Unless he was reading from one of the larger papers -- one that still has an honest-to-goodness environmental reporter who could give the basic argument of each state -- he was knee-deep in "hometown politicians ... allowed to frame the discussion." On each side of the border, the CJR points out, the best coverage came, perhaps, from The Tampa Bay Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Among the media's problems with the Apalachicola tragedy, according to the CJR: not near-enough manpower, not near-enough money to send the reporters they've got traveling to write the definitive story; a lack of fact-checking; too few story sources across the border (Georgia officials don't call Florida reporters back, Florida officials don't call Georgia reporters back); a confidentiality order issued by a federal court in 2010 that gives officials in all states involved the right -- in fact, the obligation -- to dodge questions.

But the CJR cited one more distinctive "flaw" -- if you can call it that -- and it struck a nerve with me. It was coverage by the local paper, the weekly Apalachicola Times -- actually, the most extensive coverage of the Aug. 13 story of any newspaper in either state. A praiseworthy job.

But David Adlerstein, the Times' editor and chief writer, admitted that as a small-town local editor, his job is to advocate for the local folks. He calls it "homey coverage" and describes the finished product as "well-sourced and accurate, but not necessarily balanced."

Said CJR author Nesmith, "As Adlerstein acknowledged, the coverage didn't capture a wide range of perspectives -- which means it was short on critiques of the story Scott and the locals were telling."

The reason this struck a nerve is that last week I attended Sen. Joe Negron's meeting of the Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin. It was in Stuart on the Treasure Coast, scene of unspeakably polluted rivers and waterways -- anything absorbing the freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

I saw firsthand the effect of "homey" coverage. To its credit, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers has unleashed a "lagoon team" of reporters and photographers on the story. But the coverage nevertheless has been more about cheerleading, mining popular emotion, pointing fingers and advocating for one proposed solution than it has been about taking a pragmatic overview. Like most local papers the one in Stuart lets local politicians or other activists define both problem and solution, rather than fact-finding on its own, getting the stories that make discoveries.

As Adlerstein said of his paper -- "... well-sourced and accurate, but not necessarily balanced." That's Scripps' crisis-waters story.

"Homey" coverage. Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers certainly has devoted pages and pages, day after day, to the plight of the area's polluted waters. But I can see a touch of the Apalachicola Times' advocacy in it. Not entirely a bad thing, certainly.Still, they might consider -- as the CJR advises Florida newspapers covering the other desperate water crisis, the one in Apalachicola -- it's not too late to assign reporters to make discoveries, to try to steer the discussion toward addressing the whole problem -- not just the popular solution -- before it gets worse.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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