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June 19, 2018

Collaborate and stay with the story: lessons from North Carolina’s local news on a major water contamination story

‘Getting high-quality information to people is a community endeavor, not a media challenge alone’

By Melanie Sill

NC Local is a weekly email newsletter aimed at connecting people across North Carolina who inform people with local news, information and storytelling. This post originally appeared in the weekly NC Local newsletter edition on June 6, 2018, and has been modified slightly for the Local News Lab. Subscribe to NC Local here.

As reporter Vaughn Hagerty joked in a recent email to me, he sure didn’t bury the lede: On June 7 a year ago, the veteran journalist’s story for the StarNews of Wilmington alerted hundreds of thousands of people in North Carolina’s Cape Fear region that a chemical compound called GenX, discharged from the Chemours Co. manufacturing site 100 miles upstream, had been found in treated drinking water from their local utility in New Hanover County.

Hagerty’s story and followups, which he reported as a freelancer, had both immediate impact and lasting value: other media jumped into coverage, concerned individuals and community groups sprang into action and the story expanded almost by the day with news of lawsuits, political battles, health studies and community activism. Its impact widened through the summer as GenX was discovered in private wells in the Fayetteville area and beyond, raising a host of new concerns about airborne pollutants and health risks

I had a first-hand view: Soon after the news broke, my husband and I moved back to North Carolina and settled in coastal Brunswick County, where neighbors half-jokingly asked if we wanted a beer or “a glass of GenX.”  As GenX became shorthand for a set of issues affecting water quality across North Carolina, I’ve been both a customer and an advocate for independent, reliable information, appreciating all the successes of local news coverage but also seeing how it can miss opportunities and community needs.

What’s worked, and what’s still needed

I asked reporters who’ve been involved in the GenX story to take stock, too. Here are some takeaways:

News coverage and public awareness have both been helped by key researchers willing to explain what they know, the science involved and the questions that need answering.

Detlef Knappe, the N.C. State engineering professor whose team and EPA collaborators published the scientific study that found the GenX contamination, has been a regular at public forums, given countless interviews and answered people’s questions personally.

“The EPA and the DEQ speak their own language,” said Fayetteville Observer reporter Greg Barnes. “Researchers do, too, but they have been great at breaking it down and making it understandable.”

It’s not just GenX

As with many stories, an easy to grasp headline (GenX is a trade name) may mask the reality that drinking water may contain other unregulated chemicals, some from the same “family” of compounds,  that are causing worry and battles over regulation nationally and internationally. (Sharon Lerner of The Intercept has dug into this in an ongoing series called The Teflon Toxin). In North Carolina, GenX was discovered as researchers studied bromide, and some believe a suspected carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane —which was previously known and has been found in Fayetteville’s drinking water at levels above the EPA standard — may be a greater health hazard than GenX.

Journalists on the story are justifiably proud of their impact, and have heard applause

Hagerty is just one journalist I’ve heard praised at community events around Wilmington.

  • The StarNews kept its promise to stay with the story, and WECT and WWAY television stations built extensive coverage.
  • NPR affiliate WHQR produced a one-hour documentary in December by reporter Vince Winkel, who has covered the story since it broke.
  • The GenX presence was a big new development, but pollutants in water supplies were not. Building on past coverage, veteran science journalist Catherine Clabby for N.C. Health News profiled local EPA researchers who discovered GenX in the water samples and reported that DuPont had exclusive access to a greener technology to make Teflon and related products in North Carolina, but didn’t use it.
  • Lisa Sorg at N.C. Policy Watch held regulators and legislators to scrutiny.
  • Coastal Review Online devoted significant resources and dozens of stories, including Kirk Ross’s close watch on legislative machinations, policy proposals and their impact.
  • WRAL-TV’s detailed timeline became a key resource, as did watchdog coverage like Travis Fain’s recent piece on industry involvement in legislation and too many others to list here.
  • As the center of the story moved up the Cape Fear to the Chemours plant and surrounding areas, the Fayetteville Observer ramped up coverage, advancing the story through dailies and a multipart series by Barnes that brought residents valuable context on GenX’s emergence.
  • WUNC reported on angles including Chemours’ importance as an employer in a rural area and put the GenX story front and center via the daily public affairs show The State of Things, as did UNC-TV’s N.C. Spin and WHQR’s Coastline.

Tim White, editorial page editor at the Fayetteville Observer, has been a crusading voice for information and accountability. He says the response “has been largely positive and gratifying. It’s the first time in my nearly 20 years of opinion writing in Fayetteville that I’ve seen an environmental story actually register and get people talking and demanding action.”

The answers everyone wants remain elusive

Is the water safe, and am I at risk from past exposure? (GenX was discharged into the Cape Fear for more than three decades). White noted in our email exchange that a small health study is under way, led by NCSU researchers, but that longer-term, broader epidemiological studies haven’t been done: “The biggest challenge is the same one we faced at the outset: the information we need just isn’t there.”

Room to partner, network, experiment

From outside a newsroom, here are some GenX lessons I see. They all add up to this: Getting high-quality information to people is a community endeavor, not a media challenge alone — there’s lots of room for innovating on this story in North Carolina.

It makes sense to focus scarce resources on accountability journalism

The highest-impact stories of the year around GenX, including the June 7 headline that launched a thousand others, were those that told people things they wouldn’t otherwise know and took on the big questions, some of them about how regulators, legislators and others are doing their jobs. Independent journalism has a unique mission: Timely, accurate information that helps people look out for their own interests. That involves watchdog work, fact-checking, creativity in approaches and tenacity on the big questions that come from residents and arise from the news. There’s more to learn from and about Chemours, which recently announced plans to open up public communication after refusing for nearly a year to grant interviews or site visits. (North Carolina freelance journalist Ken Otterbourg recently wrote about GenX and Chemours, a DuPont spinoff that became a Fortune 500 company on its own, for Fortune magazine)

With so many big questions out there, there’s room for news providers to try joining forces

“One as-yet-untapped opportunity that this story presents is chance for journalists to collaborate,” says Hagerty, who says he’s also ‘as competitive as the next reporter.” I’ve helped lead a couple of workshops and conversations among North Carolina journalists and others and think there’s appetite to work together beyond occasional story sharing (though there could be more of that).

Nationally, lots of models show the potential of high-impact, creative collaborations: for instance, a just-launched joint effort of South Florida news outlets tracking the effects of rising sea levels, the Dirty Little Secrets collaboration from a few years back involving several news and information outlets in New Jersey and the current BROKE in Philly project involving nearly 20 news organizations in reporting on the city’s poverty and its impact.

Two-way community connection can improve coverage, get it out to more people and build support 

High-quality information takes a village, or at least a community. In North Carolina, Fiona Morgan and Alicia Bell of Free Press’ News Voices: N.C. have led a series of workshops to connect journalism to everyday people and community concerns, and produced a community guide. Newsrooms around the country are increasingly drawing on community engagement as a central method of reporting and outreach. (A couple of starting points might help, from American Press Institute and a one-stop site called Gather).

GenX has people’s attention, and there’s likely more they have to share — and more ways to get information to people who don’t follow the news cycle. This also means recognizing community groups and individuals who are part of your local information networks, and who might be using Facebook, in-person gatherings and websites to share information and ask questions. Dana Sargent at Cape Fear River Watch, who has worked on community information in a variety of ways, emailed me that 4,000 people have signed up to get updates in their inboxes via a new Clean Water Matters feature. Working Narratives in Wilmington engages artists and community on a grassroots level with a social justice framework; the Facebook group North Carolina Stop Gen-X In Our Water site has more than 11,000 members. Journalists can tap into these digital and in-person gathering spots to find sources, listen to what people are saying and sharing, answer questions and share what they know. We have different jobs from many of these groups, but are part of the same communities.

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Melanie Sill is a veteran news leader and change-maker now working as a senior consultant on projects including Democracy Fund’s Local News Lab in North Carolina and the Membership Puzzle Project’s Join the Beat program. She was the top editor and news executive at The News & Observer of Raleigh, the Sacramento Bee and KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio and directed The N&O’s Pulitzer-winning “Boss Hog” series in the mid-1990s.