While national media focuses on ‘Bridgegate,’ W.Va reporters stay on water story
— Kallie Cart (@KallieCartWCHS) January 10, 2014
WCHS-TV reporter Kallie Cart drew national attention this week for pushing back against the president of Freedom Industries, who answered a few questions about his company's role in a chemical spill that affected the drinking water of 300,000 people in West Virginia. Gary Southern answered a few questions, sipped a little bottled water, then tried to get away.
"At this moment in time, I think that's all we have time for, so, thanks for coming, thanks for your time," Southern said.
But Cart, and other reporters there, weren't having it.
"We have more questions," she called out. "Hey, hey, hey, hey. N-no. We're not done."
Amazingly, Southern turned back for more.
The attention Cart's gotten for that moment has been flattering, she told Poynter in an e-mail, as well as humbling and overwhelming. She hasn't said much about it since, she said, "because this crisis is so much bigger than that one moment at that news conference. If anything, I hope that that clip will makes others aware outside of our area about the crisis we are facing here and continue to face."
NO NEED TO BE CONCERNED
Before the news broke of a contaminated water supply, reports came in about a strong smell from a plant on the Elk River, just a few miles from WCHS-TV's station in Charleston.
"We were in contact with West Virginia American Water throughout the day and around 3 p.m. they issued a press release saying they were aware of the spill into the Elk River and that there was no need to be concerned," Cart said.
By 5 p.m., there was need for concern. The water supply was contaminated, and a total water ban went into effect. The news dominated WCHS' coverage that night, and it has since.
"I can speak for many of us here, this is unlike any other 'big' story that we’ve covered for several reasons," Cart said. "First, the sheer number of people that this impacts, and it’s impacting them in a real way, everyone needs water and now there are lingering and serious concerns about health."
And, for many reporters in affected areas in West Virginia, it also impacts them personally. Wednesday was the first day Cart could flush her own home's system thanks to low water pressure.
"We are pulling from our own concerns and experiences to come up with story ideas," she said, "which is different than so many other stories we cover."
'THE BIGGEST STORY HERE, CONSTANTLY'
Frustration is when +300K friends and neighbors are without water and the media is obsessed with that time an NJ bridge partially closed.
— Justin McElroy (@JustinMcElroy) January 13, 2014
Justin McElroy, managing editor of Polygon, lives in Huntington, W.Va. Most of his county's water supply wasn't contaminated, but on Friday, McElroy thought he'd pick up some bottled water just to be safe.
The store's supply "was almost completely gone," he said in a phone call with Poynter.
Huntington's about half an hour from impacted areas, McElroy said, and he has watched local media tell the ongoing story of what's happening in West Virginia.
"Obviously it's the biggest story here, constantly," he said. "It's front page every day because it has such a huge and ongoing impact."
Local reporters have done a good job putting the pieces of what happened together, McElroy said, and of focusing on what this means to the daily lives of people there.
Dave Lavender, a reporter at the (Huntington, W. Va.) Herald-Dispatch, has also seen good journalism out of area TV stations, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr.
The story hasn't been as big nationally, though, as the coverage of Chris Christie and "Bridgegate," as The Guardian's Ana Marie Cox pointed out on Monday.
The reasons are easy to sum up. Most of the national media is centered around New York. Christie is a potential presidential candidate. The bridge story has a compelling narrative, and, sadly, West Virginia chronically has disasters such as this one, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, in a phone interview.
"I think it's gotten the kind of play that we expected," Lavender said in a phone interview. "I don't know that we could expect more."
McElroy understands the appeal of the Christie story, and the national scale of it.
"It's hard when people you live around and know and are friends with and care about are suffering," he said. "And it doesn't seem to be registering in the way it would in a metropolitan area."
Cart gets it, too. She started her career at a small station in Trenton, N.J., and she knows that the state is covered on a daily basis by East Coast journalists.
"But I wonder if those making the decisions are out of touch about what’s going on in the rest of the country," she said. "Maybe they think that story is so huge because it’s in their proverbial backyard."
It's disheartening, she said, because people in West Virginia are impacted in so many ways right now.
"And it makes me wonder about the decision making that is going on in national newsrooms about what is 'important' anymore," she said. "This story is about protecting and looking out for the people, the cornerstone of what we are supposed to be doing."
And that, along with the sheer spectacle of the whole thing, is likely one reason that Cart's moment with the water exec. has resonated.
"She was speaking up for the community," Cross said. "She's doing exactly what a journalist ought to do."
As she e-mailed with Poynter Wednesday night, Cart, who is 33 weeks pregnant, noted that a lift on the water ban had been reinstated for pregnant women.
She, luckily, did not drink the water.