By Allison J. Waldman
WTAE-TV, the Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate in Pittsburgh, is no stranger to awards. Last year it received a national George Foster Peabody Award for its investigation of spending practices at Pennsylvania’s state-run student loan agency.
Now it has distinguished itself as a leader in environmental reporting.
At the 2009 Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wis., WTAE reporter Jim Parsons, cameraman Kendall Cross and editor Michael Lazorko, will be honored with the SEJ Award for Outstanding Story, Television, Small Market, for their story “Drill Baby Drill.”
“This is the kind of outstanding environmental journalism that every newsroom should commit to report,” wrote SEJ about WTAE’s submission.
Currently, there is a drilling boom in western Pennsylvania. Getting through the Marcellus Shale requires millions of gallons of water for each well, and drillers don’t need anyone’s permission to pump all the water they want, free of charge.
Interest in the story began with Parsons. “Jim had been concerned about the Marcellus Shale wells,” said Cross. “There was a heck of a lot of water that’s involved. Six million gallons per well and there are hundreds of these wells being drilled. Where is all the water coming from? That was the impetus for this story.”
“It was a story that we thought people hadn’t heard a lot about yet, but they were going to hear a lot more because of drilling in the Marcellus Shale for natural gas,” Parsons said. “The drilling is relatively new in western Pennsylvania and other issues go along with that. We thought they ought to know the pros and the cons. They’d been hearing the pros, but not the cons.”
One of the details SEJ noted in the award announcement was the high level of Parsons’ reporting skills. “Jim examined the complicated issue of natural gas drilling and the impact it has on water volume in rivers and creeks and managed to tell the story in a visually compelling and impactful way. His reporting was balanced and complete with eye-opening results. In particular, the line of trucks sucking all of the water out of a river won’t easily be forgotten.”
“It was amazing, the magnitude of how much water is being taken out of the river, and that was really shown by the trailers that are hooked up and loaded with water,” said Cross. “That really brought it home. It’s one thing if it’s a small truck, once a week, sucking right out of the Monongahela River. But it’s another thing when it’s 10 of these huge trailers.”
When covering environmental issues, in particular, there may be obstacles facing reporters on the local level. “We face the misperception by news managers that environmental stories may not be something viewers care about,” Parsons said. “Environmental issues all impact on viewers where they live. It’s our job to make those stories interesting to them and explain to them how it affects their lives.”
There’s another kind of obstacle, too. “Sometimes when you’re doing environmental or investigative pieces people don’t want you to be there, but that’s okay,” Cross said. “We’re OK with that. On this particular story, there were certain people who wanted to get the truth out. That’s important. The bottom line is that a lot of things wouldn’t come out if people didn’t dig deeper. The truth wouldn’t come out. That’s what we did in this story, we dug deeper and let people know what was actually going on.”
Parsons gravitates to environmental features because of where he lives. “A city like Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania with such a rich industrial history has plenty of environmental issues,” Parsons said. “We found several years ago that when we started doing environmental stories, we were the only local TV station doing them. Just like anything else, if you bring the subject home to viewers, explain to them how it impacts on them and their lives and their families’ lives, then — guess what — they care.”
Like Parsons, Cross appreciates working on the environmental beat. “The team — Jim, Mike and I — works very well together. We like to do environmental pieces. In this story there was a really nice moment where we confronted the guys who were pulling the water out of the river and I think that helped our piece win,” Cross said.
As for the help that SEJ provides, Parsons said, “It’s a great resource. I also serve on the SEJ FOI (Freedom of Information) Task Force. That’s just one example of the services that SEJ provides journalists, especially for small, local TV stations or newspapers, independent publications and freelance journalists. It’s an invaluable resource that you can’t really find anywhere else.”