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Field reporting

Feeding the masses (with information)

radio tower

 

As public debate about global warming, pollution, water shortages and the organic movement intensifies, issues about food are often at the center of the controversy. For journalists, explaining how food is grown and why it matters means first understanding the science, then making it relevant.

"Being able to relate the information in a way the reader or listener can understand is the most significant barrier” to reporting on environmental issues, says Eric Durban, BJ ’09.

Durban, based out of High Plains Public Radio in western Kansas, is one of six multimedia reporters for Harvest Public Media, a news organization covering agricultural issues, including how farming relates to sustainability.

Harvest is a collaboration among public radio stations in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri, including Mizzou’s National Public Radio (NPR) station, KBIA-FM. It was launched with a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as one of seven local journalism centers nationwide. Each center focuses on one topic, and Harvest’s location in the nation’s breadbasket makes agriculture a natural choice. 

The question of how farming affects the environment (and vice versa) can be polarizing, says Donna Vestal, BJ ’84, of KCUR, an NPR station in Kansas City, and the editor of Harvest.

“It deals with sustainability, feeding the world and the economics of survival for many people in this country,” she says. With so much at stake, tensions between farmers, consumers and environmental activists can run high.

To tell stories about these topics, Harvest reporters cover the often-complicated science of sustainability. Recent stories include how a fungus killing Missouri bats could lead to farmers needing more pesticides to control bug infestations, plant pathologists’ war against viruses that attack wheat in Kansas and how the unique properties of cellulose in corn make the quest for successful biofuel production a difficult endeavor.

The stories appear on Harvest’s website, harvestpublicmedia.org, and may be aired on any member station or picked up by local or national media, including NPR.

Janet Saidi, an assistant professor in the journalism school and the news director of KBIA, says that the station’s membership in Harvest also provides valuable experience for journalism students because they can contribute to the pool of stories that Harvest collects and distributes to local and national media.

“There was certainly a learning curve,” says Durban, who didn’t have much science journalism experience before starting at Harvest. “I’m learning something new every day.”

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