J500 Media and the Environment

Notes from an escaped science writer by rarab
January 30, 2008, 12:08 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

WARNING: The following will be longer than 250 words (I have trouble ordering lunch in less than 300!) Besides, if I wanted to keep things to 250 words, I’d write extended pieces for USA Today.

As a means of full disclosure, I should say that going through the assigned readings this week felt like some sort of personal Groundhog Day. For roughly four years (1999-2003) I was the Science Writer here at KU, and so a large portion of my job entailed uncovering and writing about the scientific research being conducted here on campus (and occasionally at the Med Center). I was told to always keep several angles in mind: First and foremost was economic impact to the state economy. Coming in a close second was a tie between benefits to the quality of life and promotion of the university. Sounds like an easy formula…and it could be. But I enjoyed my job the most when I discovered research that, quite frankly, personally fascinated me.

From time to time, I’d get to write about researchers’ attempts to combat greenhouse gases through carbon farming, or I’d meet a researcher who studied the effects of climate change on certain animal populations. I really enjoyed those moments, but that didn’t make it any easier, of course. Science writing, for me, was a fun but challenging process. The technical aspects were tough, no doubt, but that wasn’t the hardest part of it.

It was all of the compromise that went into writing a science piece.

What do I mean…well, for starters, every press release had to be approved by the scientist first, and (inherently) it also had to meet the university’s standards. I couldn’t, for example, write a piece about a scientist here that didn’t fully outline his/her connection to KU or list the amount (and source) of money from his/her grant. I saw how this directly affected local science journalists because they often worked directly off of my news releases, so the story that appeared in the KC Star, for instance, might have huge chunks directly lifted from my press release–or their story would be shaped by the way I chose to frame my story. In many cases, my releases appeared in newspapers verbatim–and listed only as, Source: University Relations–so I really was the foreman in the clearinghouse of local science info.

With all of that in mind, here are some of the things that I discovered, but that weren’t really touched upon in the readings (consume as many grains of salt as you see fit):

Don’t confuse scientists with saints. We have a tendency to put scientists on a pedestal–and they often perpetuate that myth. Science is knowledge and knowledge is power…ergo scientists often feel they know more than the average schmuck (and in some specialized areas they do). But one must never forget that scientists need journalists, too…it is, as scientists themselves would say, a symbiotic relationship. Unfortunately, many scientists don’t know how to communicate their work in very basic terms, terms their grandmothers would understand. Without someone to distill that information into lay terms, they have a much harder time convincing administrators that their science requires support, they have a hard time convincing legislators to secure funding, their spin-off corporations have a hard time getting off the ground…

All of this is simply to say that both sides need to have a competent level of literacy in the other’s field. Be patient when writing about science; scientists, be patient when dealing with reporters. All of my stories were combed over several times by nervous scientists, who insisted on inserting cautionary language at every turn, trampling metaphors in the process. I constantly had to set aside whatever writing ego I had to make sure I was accurate and not overplaying (or underplaying) significance.

Be careful of the media whores. Reporters need to check into scientists’ frames of reference. Sure, maybe they have legitimate funding, but is that funding from, say, an oil company? Wouldn’t that funding influence the researcher’s stance on, say, alternative energy sources? As the readings pointed out, follow the money and consider the source…not every scientist has a purely “objective” agenda.

Reporters: Don’t be lazy. Too many reporters simply took my releases as fact. Sure, I worked hard to be accurate, but I was clearly framing the stories to fit other agendas, too…now that I suggested following the money, also be sure to look beyond the money (confusing, no?)…science is not just important if it has a huge dollar sign attached to it or if it creates X number of jobs (those are great, but basic science is just as important, although much more difficult to explain). Even if you write for a newspaper (as opposed to PR work), send the sections of your story that detail the science back to the scientist and let him/her make sure you reported it accurately. Reporters don’t like handing their work over to the source, but if you send just those excerpts, it can go a long way.

Okay, if my calculations are correct, that should bring me right to 250 words, so I’ll leave it at that. I could easily go on (and probably will at some point in the class discussion) but I just wanted to share some insights from what could be a rewarding–and fun–job. Of course, it could also leave you feeling dumb as a rock…and you’ll constantly hear your mother’s voice saying: “Why didn’t you become a doctor!” But that’s a topic for a later date. Right now, I’m only discussing those matters with Dr. Phil.


Who Knew?? by lindsaycr
January 23, 2008, 3:58 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

I never realized the extent to which I abused the environment. For example, when I took the ecological footprint quiz (http://www.earthday.net/footprint/index.asp#), I discovered that I totaled 28 acres, while the average person consumed 24! I couldn’t believe that I was wasting more than the average person since I thought I was somewhat environmentally conscious.

I know that my commute to Lawrence from KC twice a week is probably what tipped me over the edge, as well as the fact that I LOVE meat and eat it pretty much everyday, but I still was surprised by the outcome. I couldn’t believe that if everyone lived like me, there would need to be 6.2 planets! I seriously hope that someone else in the class got a higher number than me so I won’t feel so bad. Just kidding.

Anyways, I saw on someone else’s blog a comment about the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? (http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/) I absolutely loved that movie and couldn’t believe all of that really happened. It was so sad when the company came and took all the cars away, and I know this is weird, but I almost cried at the end! I can’t wait until the day comes when we can just pull into the garage, plug in the car, and then be on our way. I hope that future is not too far away!

P.S. A new movie is coming out soon called Who Saved the Electric Car? Can’t wait to see it!


living at the expense of the environment by dmdeshazer
January 22, 2008, 11:32 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

I, like Kim, just waltzed back into my college life in Lawrence after a 17-day journey in the Big Apple. Needless to say, I miss every aspect of the life I had there. Until I read Kim’s post, I had only calculated my “normal life in Lawrence/Kansas City” footprint, but decided to calculate my NYC footprint as well.

Lawrence: 20-acre footprint — 4.4 planets
New York City: 10-acre footprint — 2.2 planets

I wasn’t surprised in the least bit that living in a major city cut my footprint in half, but this knowledge makes me admire New York living so much more. Most people there aren’t making enough money to waste much themselves anyway, and to be honest, I walked or took the subway absolutely everywhere. Public transportation makes me giggle– I love it that much.

Life in Lawrence, for me at least, is not “eco-conscious.” Although I walk to campus and my classes, and I admit, to the bars, I drive everywhere else. It seems that’s what life has dwindled down to. Especially being from the Kansas City-area, I’m used to getting around by car. And now that I intern in Topeka part-time (at Natural Home magazine, a sustainable, “green living” magazine), I am going to be driving that much more. Kim and I are carpooling with each other, but I only thought to do this in order to “save money,” not the environment. That’s what our world has come to– everything that drives our decisions is mostly by the price tag attached to it. I would like to eat better, natural, whole foods, but it’s more expensive. I’d like to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs, etc., but again, they’re expensive.

I’m not saying I’m not conscious of it, but in a college student’s life, it’s much easier to go the cheaper way than the healthier, environment-friendly route. I hope that I can learn to take those “baby steps” toward better living, even if it’s by the sacrifice of some short change.

–Danae DeShazer

Baby Steps by Sarah
January 22, 2008, 4:50 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

So, it is refreshing to hear that my footprint of 12 is half of the average person. But what is not so refreshing to hear is that we would need 2.7 planets to support a world of Sarahs.

To tell you the truth, I expected a warning box to pop up at the end of my Ecological Footprint Quiz telling me that I am one of the people who are specifically responsible for the destruction of the rainforest; and because of this I am going straight to hell. Luckily, that was not the case and it sounds like I was spared.

I will be the first to admit, I have not been the most environmentally friendly person up until recently, and my results were not shocking to me. When I say “up until recently” I mean for example, I was that person who didn’t recycle because I was lazy to take it somewhere, the one who grabbed a new water bottle instead of reusing one, and I’m the same person who used a roll of paper towels to clean up a mess instead of the washable towel sitting next to them on the counter. Obviously, I needed to make some changes. After taking this Ecological Footprint Quiz, my assumptions were reaffirmed. I need to continue to change my lifestyle, and so does the rest of the world.

So far, I am proud of the small changes in my life that I have made. I’m trying to take it one step at a time, and slowly recruit my friends to do the same. I purchased my own reusable grocery bags at Hy-Vee the other day and have vowed to stop using the thousands of plastic bags I probably used last year. I took my first load of recycling up to Wal-Mart as well, and let me tell you, it felt great. My proudest moment so far was stopping by Local Burger instead of making a mad dash through the McDonald’s drive-thru last week.

-Sarah Nelson

Putting our best foot forward by rarab
January 22, 2008, 12:34 pm
Filed under: Society + Media

The Bad News: From taking the Ecological Footprint Test, I just discovered it would take a planet the size of Neptune to sustain my current way of living.

The Good News: At least it wasn’t the size of Uranus. (Okay, I admit my humor was stunted at age 10.)

Seriously, while the Footprint Test was very useful–and one that every American (if not every Earth dweller) should take at some point in their life–I did notice some serious oversights in its approach. I appreciated its simplified nature (making it accessible and easy to fill out), but I wish it would have gone to greater lengths.

For example, I consider myself to be a fairly enlightened person when it comes to environmental issues (key word: “fairly”)–I recycle on a regular basis, I take cloth bags to the grocery store, I purchase mostly organic foods (that don’t rely on harmful pesticides or needless chemical substitutes)…none of those factors, though, appear directly in the test. Instead, we do get standard questions about gas mileage, plane useage, and public transportation. All important questions, no doubt, but not the entire picture. Moreover, most of those factors are pretty much out of my control.

What do I mean exactly? Well, let me put it to you this way: I came to this realization while frantically spending my Sunday afternoon trying to deal with a frozen water pipe that cracked under the strain of tundra-like conditions, turning my basement into a set from “Waterworld.” As precious water was wastefully gushing, I saw firsthand how some environmental catastrophes, though occurring under my watch, are simply out of my control. Moreover, when I was reminded by the plumber that future pipe bursts could be prevented by constantly running a stream of water from the taps in my house, I had a mini-breakdown, wondering if I’d ever be able to lessen my wasteful ways. I eventually came to the conclusion that, try as hard as I might, I simply couldn’t correct all of my problems. I’m destined to leave a larger ecological footprint than I’d like. But then again, we’re always told that size doesn’t matter, right? (Yeah, I never believed that either…)

More to my point, there are some things, like gas mileage, for example, which I simply cannot correct overnight–and I certainly can’t make those changes alone. For instance, I’ve promised myself that my next car will be a hybrid (even though my current car gets a decent mileage of 28/30 mpg), but even THAT is not enough. As the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car? pointed out, we currently have the technology to create cars with far better gas mileage (that is ZERO useage of gas)…unfortunately, though, such cars are not available to–or affordable for–average schmucks like myself. I can’t, for example, take a bus or a train to my semi-annual work trips to NY and DC; my city doesn’t offer truly efficient and reliable public transportation to reach all corners of town. So, on some levels, I’m stuck, dependent on lawmakers and financial considerations, among other factors.

All of this, of course, is not to say the “Good Fight” is futile. It’s anything but that. But it does mean we have to set priorities, make the changes immediately where we can, and fight for the bigger changes whenever possible. And, even though we each have an individual ecological footprint, we are not going at this alone…just like I relied on that plumber to bail me out of the flooding, so too must we all work together to make sure mileage standards are as high as possible, that public transportation becomes a viable option, that recycling opportunities are made available to all. We can all reduce the size of our footprint individually–and that would be a major first step–but let’s not also forget, as the Worldmapper reminds us, that ultimately we leave a collective footprint as a city, a state, a nation…a planet. So, the tricky part, I suppose, is finding the balance between lessening one’s own footprint and finding a way to reduce our collective shoe size, as it were.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, they’re scheduled to play an NHL game in my laundry room, and I’m supposed to officiate…


Recycling? “What rubbish!” by denzylj
January 21, 2008, 11:07 pm
Filed under: Waste + Recycling

So might the thinking be if you’re jobless and wondered where your next meal was going to come from, let alone be pre-occupied by sorting your bottles from your aluminum cans, unless there was some monetary incentive to do so. But living a fairly comfortable existence is no excuse not to aspire to a sustainable lifestyle. Criminal too, to scoff at the predictions of environmental doomsayers. My feeble attempt – cycling and using public transport, as opposed to owning a car, make for an impressive mobility count on the Ecological Footprint Quiz, but amount to precious little in terms of limiting overall biocapacity. I used to recycle, but my former roommates paid scant attention to such considerations – beer cans, bottles, plastic and newspaper were all the same – just trash. Now, I’ve become lazy, my one excuse being that ferrying bags of separated refuse over my shoulders and handlebars, just isn’t conducive to safe riding, not least of all the damage to my tyres pride. Maybe if I had one of these trash hauling bicycles used in some major cities of the world, I could convince myself that as de rigueur as recycling has become, I’d forgo the aesthetic appeal in favor of something utterly unfashionable, yet practical. It’s cold comfort that my footprint is half the national average, and the fact that it would take nearly three planets to maintain my livelihood elicits a knee-jerk response that makes me question the efficacy of the quiz. Still, it’s cause for concern and just like my bike recoils at the prospect of summiting Mount Oread, this whole re(cycling) thing, has become just one, big uphill battle.


A world apart by kimwallace
January 21, 2008, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Cars + Transport, Society + Media | Tags: , ,

After coming back from a two-week stint in New York City, I decided it would be interesting to measure my footprint while living there versus my footprint while living in Lawrence. This quiz proved to me what I already knew: NYC and Lawrence are a world apart.

My NYC ecological footprint was 10 acres, or 2.3 planets. I lived in a city with more than a million people and a very reliable public transportation system and walked for miles on end. I shared a small apartment with four other girls, and consumed much less than the people around me. After all, I was on a budget.

Back home in Lawrence, though, my life is different. My ecological footprint is 15 acres, or 3.3 planets. A world apart. This does not surprise me. I commute 180 miles to work every week—but I do carpool and drive a decent, fuel-efficient car. The west side of the city has fallen victim to sprawl, so I can’t reasonably walk anywhere without ending up in a cul-de-sac or busy Clinton Parkway. I share a 1,000 square-feet apartment with one roommate—but we use CFLs and keep our thermostat as low as possible. After all, we are on tight college student budgets.

So, how can tight-pocketed college students green their lifestyles in a city that is not built on a grid and in a city without efficient public transportation? It’s the small steps, I think. Sure, I may live a little more lavishly at home than I would ever be able to in the Big Apple, but the little things that I pay attention to—energy conservation and fuel efficiency—help offset the way I live here. After all, in the city, I was living in an old brownstone with drafty windows and doors, conventional lighting and more trash than I knew what to do with. I expected my “number” to be lot higher than it turned out to be, but I wish there was a way to lower it in Lawrence without losing the leisure of motor transportation.