Environmental journalism

PandoDaily explains climate change in musical explainer

PandoDaily’s David Holmes has published a new, interactive explainer on climate change. “[W]e wanted to see if we could take the ‘explainer song’ model and make it more social and interactive,” Holmes tells Poynter in an email. “Climate Change, Remixed” lets viewers add or remove instrumentation, including a “bumping car” button that adds “The Chronic”-style sounds and — if for some reason you need such a thing in your life — slap bass.

Here’s the noninteractive version of the song (the more fun one is here)

Holmes wrote the song with Andrew Bean, who he says plays most of the instruments on the track. Both men sang. Sharon Shattuck worked on the art and animation, Holmes said, and Zach Thompson coded it. “We were inspired by interactive music projects like this one by the band ABBY,” he said in his email.

Holmes’ explainer on fracking, which my coworker Mallary Tenore wrote about in May 2011, has racked up more than 300,000 views on YouTube. He’s worked on a number of “PandoHouse Rock” musical explainers, including a fun one on copyright.

Previously: From Schoolhouse Rock to ‘The Fracking Song,’ explainers as ‘acts of empathy’ | ProPublica explains Super PACs with song Read more

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Washington Post preserves environmental coverage while moving staff

The Huffington Post | Slate
Juliet Eilperin is switching from The Washington Post’s environment beat to its “online strike force” in politics. Rest easy, those of you concerned by The New York Times’ decision to shutter its Green blog not long after closing down its environment pod — the move doesn’t reflect a change in the number of people the Post will throw at environment coverage.

“Darryl Fears is still on the environment beat for us and Juliet’s position will be backfilled,” Post spokesperson Kris Coratti writes to Poynter in an email, using the latter term to indicate Eilperin’s opening will likely be filled by someone within the company. Eilperin, she adds, “is also taking her expertise with her — she will be reporting on the debate over climate change and environmental policy from her White House perch.”

Will Oremus counts some of “the 65-odd other Times blogs that did not get the axe”:

Five blogs on culture and media, including “The Carbetbagger,” about awards shows; “After Deadline: Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style;” and “Media Decoder,” a media-industry blog that so far has not seen fit to cover the Times’ own elimination of its “Green” blog.

The Post does not have a science blog. Read more


NYT closes its environment desk, reassigns journalists

InsideClimate News | The Daily Climate
The nine journalists on The New York Times’ environment desk learned Wednesday they will be reassigned, Katherine Bagley reports. “No decision has been made about the fate of the Green Blog, which is edited from the environment desk,” Bagley writes. Managing Editor for news operations Dean Baquet told Bagley the move was “wasn’t a decision we made lightly.” The “structural matter” was not related to budget, he said.

Baquet said the change “was prompted by the shifting interdisciplinary landscape of news reporting,” Bagley writes.

When the desk was created in early 2009, the environmental beat was largely seen as “singular and isolated,” he said. It was pre-fracking and pre-economic collapse. But today, environmental stories are “partly business, economic, national or local, among other subjects,” Baquet said. “They are more complex. We need to have people working on the different desks that can cover different parts of the story.”

The Daily Climate’s Douglas Fischer reported Jan. 2 that in 2012 the Times “published the most stories on climate change and had the biggest increase in coverage among the five largest U.S. daily papers”; Times Assistant Managing Editor Glenn Kramon “attributed last year’s uptick in the paper’s coverage to the fruition of a 4-year-old effort to group top reporters on a separate environment desk,” Fischer writes.

Updates: New York Times’ Dot Earth blog responds to decision | Public Editor Margaret Sullivan responds Read more

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a campaign stop at the Iowa 80 Group in Walcott, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Rick Perry’s assertions on global warming reveal reporting challenges when science, politics collide

In the course of two days last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry expressed controversial views on two politically sensitive scientific issues. The news coverage of his remarks once again demonstrated the challenge journalists face when science intermingles with politics.

Perry, the newly announced candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, suggested that man-made climate change is little more than a hoax, perpetrated by “a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data.” Then, a day later, he voiced skepticism about evolution, which he called a theory “with gaps in it.”

Perry’s assertions weren’t new or terribly surprising. He’s spoken before about his doubts regarding climate change (his recent book calls it “a contrived phony mess”) and his belief in “intelligent design.” And other GOP presidential candidates, most notably U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), have expressed similar opinions.

But Perry’s statements renewed a discussion about how the media report on politically charged scientific subjects. The task for journalists can be especially vexing on issues where there’s substantial political controversy but little scientific disagreement. A 2010 National Academy of Sciences survey found that 97 percent of climate scientists agree humans are changing the climate, while a 2009 Pew Research Center survey concluded that 87 percent of scientists believe in evolution “due to natural processes.”

“In some issues in science, there’s really just one answer,” said Tom Yulsman, the co-director of the University of Colorado Center for Environmental Journalism. “That makes science a lot different from our binary world of politics.”

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared in Walcott, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

It also makes reporting on scientific issues different from covering political squabbles. While many political reporters are most comfortable writing stories that evenly portray both sides of controversial issues, Yulsman said stories about issues such as climate change need to take a different approach.

“Part of the context is stating – even in a political story — that there’s very little scientific debate,” said Yulsman, who developed a Poynter e-learning course on covering climate change.

Some stories included context; some did not

Perry’s comments, especially those on the climate, provided plenty of fodder both for his supporters and opponents:

  • He disputed the premise that humans are affecting the Earth’s climate.
  • He suggested, without substantiation, that scientists are hyping the danger of global warming “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”
  • He said other scientists are coming forward “almost weekly or even daily” to question the prevailing theory.

In fact, while there are indeed some skeptical scientists, there’s no evidence that their numbers are quickly growing or that they make up more than a small minority of the experts who’ve extensively studied the subject.

Many of the media accounts of Perry’s remarks attempted to reflect the scientific context. The Associated Press reported, “Perry’s opinion runs counter to the view held by an overwhelming majority of scientists.” The Washington Post noted “the broad scientific consensus” that mankind is affecting the climate, then followed up with a biting online analysis that accused the Texas governor of “made-up facts.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram told readers in Perry’s home state, “While most climate scientists believe that climate change is real and that fossil fuel combustion is helping warm the Earth, a core group of dissenters, coupled with some conservative groups and activists, has challenged that view.”

“I worked on that sentence for about 10 minutes,” Star-Telegram political reporter Aman Batheja told me in a phone interview. “That was an important part of the story, that Perry was saying something that’s different from what most experts in the field feel.”

Batheja said he heard complaints from a few readers about the story; one online comment read, “The liberal media’s attack on Perry is in full swing.” The AP and Washington Post articles attracted a fair amount of scorn from conservatives, including websites associated with Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck.

Meanwhile, a handful of media organizations chose to report Perry’s comments without any scientific context. As might be expected, Politico’s stories concentrated instead on the potential political ramifications of the remarks, drawing distinctions between Perry and fellow Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., who both say they believe in man-made climate change and evolution.

The National Journal and Agence France-Presse took similar approaches, analyzing Perry’s positions in the context of voter attitudes rather than scientific opinion. Their stories included some interesting information, including polls showing a good deal of doubt among the public about evolution and man’s effect on the climate.

But AFP correspondent Mira Oberman said in a phone interview late last week that she regrets omitting the scientific perspective from her story about the Texas governor’s remarks.

“I should have thrown a line in there saying this runs contrary to the opinion of the overwhelming majority of scientists,” said Oberman, who writes mainly for an overseas audience.

“What’s problematic for some journalists is they get caught up in the idea that you have to be balanced and you can’t take a partisan position,” Oberman said. “Once a politician turns a fact-based issue into something that’s partisan, they feel handcuffed.”

Tips for journalists when science, politics collide

In addition to concerns about balance, the very nature of daily political journalism sometimes hampers reporters from including scientific context in their stories. Reports from the campaign trail often are relatively short and filed on tight deadlines, affording journalists little space or time to provide background on complex issues.

Still, news organizations can take some steps to assure accuracy and perspective in their coverage of politically-tinged scientific controversies:

Plan ahead. You can’t anticipate every issue that will come up during political campaigns, but you can bet that scientific hot-buttons like climate change and evolution will be among them. In varying degrees, they’ve been a point of contention in each of the last four presidential elections.

Editors and newsroom managers should develop policies on how to report on such issues and how to incorporate appropriate scientific context. You can help political reporters who may lack the time or knowledge to research unfamiliar scientific subjects by coming up with some suggested language – periodically updated to reflect current scientific thinking – and a contact list of credible experts.

Avoid false equivalence in the name of “fairness.” It’s understandable that mainstream journalists don’t want to be seen as taking sides in a political conflict. But you can write a fair story while still referencing the prevailing scientific view. Hard data — like the results of reputable surveys of scientists — can add credibility to your reporting, as can a legitimate assessment of the possible holes or ambiguity in the prevailing theory.

“My obligation is to understand the nature of whatever issue I’m writing about and understand the degree of uncertainty that there is,” said Michael Lemonick, a former Time magazine science correspondent who now writes for the nonprofit journalistic organization Climate Central. “Two sides doesn’t mean two equal sides,” Lemonick said in a phone interview.

See the big picture. News accounts that merely reported Perry’s statements only told part of the story. A more informed – and useful – approach explains the scientific consensus and examines why politicians such as Perry distrust it.

Yulsman, the Colorado professor, noted that a candidate’s positions on scientific wedge issues tend to serve as a proxy for his or her values on broader topics, such as the role of government in the free market and the role of faith in American life. Read more


Environmental journalists group names contest winners

Society of Environmental Journalists
The Society of Environmental Journalists has named 18 winners of the 2010-2011 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. The contest is the world’s largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics. (There were 207 entries this year.) The first place winners are:

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Large Market
“The True Story Behind the Oil Spill” by Abrahm Lustgarten, Journalist, ProPublica, with independent producers Martin Smith, Marcela Gaviria and Ryan Knutson for PBS Frontline.

Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Small Market
“Chinese Drywall: Why one of the biggest defective product investigations in U.S. history has left homeowners struggling for help” by Joaquin Sapien, Reporter, ProPublica; Aaron Kessler, Reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; and Jeff Larson, News Applications Developer, ProPublica.

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Large Market
“BP Oil Spill Coverage” by Josh Harkinson, Mac McClelland, Kate Sheppard, Julia Whitty, for Mother Jones.

Outstanding Beat Reporting, Small Market
“Reporting on the BP Oil Spill” by David Hammer, Staff Writer, The Times-Picayune.

Outstanding Single Story
“In Middle East, Coalition Aims to Ease Tension Over Water Resources” by Fred de Sam Lazaro, Correspondent; Nicole See, Producer/Editor; Tom Adair, Videographer; and Patti Parson, Managing Producer; PBS Newshour.

Rachel Carson Environment Book Award
Shell Games: Rogues, Smugglers, and the Hunt for Nature’s Bounty by Craig Allen Welch
William Morrow (New York, 2010)

The judges’ comments and links to the winning entries are here. Read more


From Schoolhouse Rock to ‘The Fracking Song,’ explainers as ‘acts of empathy’

In all the years he’s been playing the guitar and keyboard, David Holmes never pictured himself recording a song about hydraulic fractured drilling.

But Holmes, a journalism student in New York University’s Studio 20 program, recently did just that as part of Studio 20’s “Building a Better Explainer Project.”

The explainer, called the “The Fracking Song,” unravels the complexities of natural gas drilling and has already gotten about 78,000 hits on YouTube since it launched last week. Holmes created the song to go along with a related investigation by ProPublica, which is a partner in the Studio 20 project.

“We were concerned with building a better entryway into that investigation and we figured a song would be the perfect way to do it — especially since it’s called fracking,” Holmes said by phone. “It worked perfectly for a song, and let us do some interesting things lyrically.”

The chorus of the song illustrates this:

“What the frack is going on with all this fracking going on?
“I think we need some facts to come to light
“I know we want our energy but nothing ever comes for free
“I think my water’s on fire tonight …”

Holmes knew little about fracking prior to recording the song, so he read ProPublica’s stories about it and tried to figure out what context he needed to help people make sense of the issue.

“A lot of the stories on ProPublica’s site do a really good job of adding context, but some of them are more like news updates. Those might link to proper context, but if you just started reading them and you knew nothing about fracking, it would be harder to understand.”

Providing lyrics, adding additional context

Holmes, who played the bass and keyboard in the song, wrote the lyrics with classmate Niel Bekker and asked two of his friends to create the graphics. Another one of his friends co-wrote the music with him and mixed the song. Holmes said ProPublica edited the lyrics and made minor changes, such as replacing “leads” to “could lead” in the line “Fracking done wrong could lead to climate change too.”

The Huffington Post, The New York Times, Forbes and others have written about the song, and some have pointed out the importance of using careful language when describing the implications of fracking.

“It was a little bit challenging because the song was really wordy to being with,” Holmes said. “But ProPublica wanted to make sure that the lyrics were as journalistically robust and as accurate as the investigation was.”

This isn’t the first time ProPublica has used songs as explainers. Last year, it collaborated with NPR’s Planet Money to create a song about the banks’ financial crisis and a show tune about a hedge fund.

“The Fracking Song” stands out because it’s accompanied by lyrics with links to stories in ProPublica’s investigation. This adds a layer pf context and makes it easier for people to delve deeper into the parts of the explainer that interest them most.

ProPublica Senior Editor Eric Umansky, who helped with Studio 20′s “Building a Better Explainer Project,” said the song accomplished what ProPublica hoped it would by making an important energy issue both entertaining and accessible. The song, he said, is a good reminder that it’s important to give people options when it comes to consuming news.

“Journalists have many more tools in our toolbox than we did even five or 10 years ago,” Umansky said by phone. “We can be more creative in terms of how we tell stories, and we should take advantage of that. It doesn’t mean we’d have to do it every time, but we should be thinking about how we can use those tools.”

Explainers as context providers, “acts of empathy”

Jay Rosen, who leads the Studio 20 program, says that when it comes to the news, people often enter “in the middle of the movie.” Unless they are particularly passionate about a topic and have followed it closely, they may not have the background information they need to understand the larger picture.

And journalists may not always provide it — either because they don’t want to weigh down a story with information they’ve already reported, or because they’re so immersed in a story that they forget not everyone knows as much as they do about the topic at hand.

In many ways, Rosen said, explainers like the Fracking Song are “acts of empathy” with the non-specialists; they anticipate the questions “regular” users are going to have and answer them.

“There’s the stream of updates for the news junkies who already have a framework for understanding the story; explainers are for the rest of us,” Rosen told me. “When you realize that the most common definition of news is ‘what’s new today,’ or what hasn’t been reported yet, you can see why explainers are a special case in journalism, their own genre.”

Explainers often work best when they contain visuals, Rosen said: “Visualization is really important for two reasons: the eye can take in so much more in a glance if there are the right visuals, and clarity is often composed in visual images.”

The value of putting information to music

Anecdotally speaking, songs work well as explainers because they can help people retain information.

“If you read an article in a newspaper, chances are you’re not going to read it again unless it’s really good,” Holmes said. “If a song is catchy, people may listen to it numerous times, and that allows that information to sink in.”

I still remember the lyrics to “The Fifty Nifty United States” — a song that lists all the states alphabetically. I learned the song in elementary school and doubt I’d still be able to alphabetize the states had I simply seen them listed on a piece of paper.

And think about Schoolhouse Rock, educational music videos that aimed to help students remember the preamble to the Constitution and grammar by putting them to music. The series’ creator, David McCall, got the idea for it after noticing that his son was having trouble remembering his multiplication tables but had memorized the lyrics to several rock songs.

Rosen said his 9-year-old and 14-year-old were able to sing the chorus to “The Fracking Song” after hearing it just once, in part because it’s so catchy.

“It is also had some humor in it, which mixes with the serious subject without being offensive, and I think it’s fun to watch,” Rosen said. “I also think there’s another message: it’s cool to be informed, and not just for wonks. Music helps with that.”

Music isn’t always the best approach for explainers. The form of the explainer depends in large part on the subject, Holmes said.

“I think you have to be careful about trivializing an issue with a song,” he said. “Something like the tsunami in Japan, or something where there’s a huge loss of life might not be appropriate. You have to be really sensitive about those topics.”

Holmes said the comments he’s gotten about “The Fracking Song” have been mostly positive, aside from a few commenters who don’t think fracking is an issue.

He’s heard from people who say they want to use the song to raise awareness about how fracking is affecting their communities. He’s also heard from scientists who thought the song did a good job of breaking down a complicated issue that they’ve tried to help people understand for years. Read more


Columbia names winners of Oakes Award for Environmental Reporting

Romenesko Misc.
The $5,000 first place award goes to The Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC’s International News Service for their collaborative investigation of the asbestos market. Second place goes to The New Orleans Times-Picayune for its extensive and enterprising coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Egan wins third-place honors for “Great Lakes, Great Peril: A Road Map to Restoration.” Read more


Kamb’s ‘Chain Saw Scouting’ series wins Knight-Risser environmental journalism award

Lewis Kamb‘s project — initiated while was working at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer — revealed land-use practices by the Boy Scouts of America in direct opposition of their mandate to preserve and protect the environment. Read more


Candidates For Office Need to Hear More Precise Questions

I am sick of the uninspired campaigns of 2010. The candidates all say the same things: “I am for lower taxes, I am against illegal immigration, I will stand up for the middle class and blah blah blah … “

I wonder how a candidate would answer the question, “If you had to cut one federal program, which one would it be, and why?”

I also would ask candidates some specific questions, including:

 Would you support privatizing the U.S. Postal Service? Last week, we learned the USPS is, once again, close to being broke and is digging a deeper hole by the week. Part of the issue is that the Postal Service competes against free enterprise but is saddled with regulation about pricing, services, employee contracts and Congressmen who fight closing useless facilities. The options include propping up the USPS with tax dollars, propping it up but loosening regulations to let it compete, or getting out of the postal business and letting the USPS sell stock to employees and the public.

The Cato Institute says Congress should repeal statutes that preserve a “postal monopoly” for the USPS and allow free enterprise to deliver postage. Nonprofits have a huge interest in the issue because a private postal service may not give nonprofits favored rates. Businesses banded together last week to oppose a postal rate hike.

If candidates oppose private ownership, then would they favor raising rates and cutting costs (like employment, benefits, delivery days, post offices) or would they loosen regulations that would allow the post office to operate like a business and expand services? The status quo likely will require an infusion of tax dollars.

Would you support relaxing the embargo on trade and travel to Cuba? Canadians can go there. The Pork Producers Council, to cite an example of one business interest, wants to be able to trade more freely with Cubans. The Cuban government announced recently that it is laying off a half-million government workers. There may be signals that Cuba is opening, ever so slightly, to business. Has the U.S. embargo outlived its use? The Pork Producers Council says:

“Iowa State economist Dermot Hayes estimates that U.S. pork exports would increase by $28.2 million once the travel and financing restrictions on Cuba are lifted. Over the past year, the United States shipped about $13.4 million of pork to Cuba. The policy change also would create about 6,000 additional jobs in the United States, according to a study conducted by Texas A&M University, which also found that total U.S. exports would increase by $365 million a year.”

Congress was to consider legislation last week that would have allowed direct payment to U.S. banks and would have loosened travel from the U.S. to Cuba.

Would you support cutting federal farm subsidies? More than 70 percent of the government’s $30 billion in farm subsidies goes to the largest 10 percent of farm businesses. Last week, the World Trade Organization called on the United States to cut farm subsidies, fearing they could drive up prices. Go here [PDF] to learn more about how price supports work. You also can search here to see who gets a subsidy. The Environmental Working Group found:

“The average household income of farms that received $30,000 or more in government payments was above $210,000 in 2008, more than three times the average U.S. household income that year. Farming operations that received between $10,000 and $29,999 in subsidies earned $110,368 in total household income, 61 percent more than the U.S. mean household income. And the household income of farms that got between $1,000 and $9,999 in subsidies was $70,117, still above U.S. average.”

Would you promise not to use earmarks to spend federal dollars? Would you vote for legislation to ban earmarks? Taxpayers for Common Sense says this year, 9,499 federal budget earmarks spent almost $16 billion of your dollars [PDF]. The Council on Citizens Against Government Waste produces a “pig book” that says 9,129 projects qualify. Whether it is waste or not, if the programs deserve funding, shouldn’t they go through the normal process of evaluation, review and disclosure that other federal spending goes through?

“The Pig Book Summary profiles the most egregious examples, breaks down pork per capita by state, and presents the annual Oinker Awards. All 9,129 projects are listed in a searchable database on CAGW’s website www.cagw.org. Examples of pork in the 2010 Pig Book include:

  • “$465,000,000 for the alternate engine for the Joint Strike Fighter
  • “$5,000,000 for the Presidio Heritage Center in California
  • “$1,000,000 for Portsmouth Music Hall in New Hampshire
  • “$400,000 for the USA Swimming Foundation in New Jersey
  • “$300,000 for Carnegie Hall in New York City
  • “$250,000 for the Monroe County Farmer’s Market in Kentucky
  • “$200,000 for the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia
  • “$206,000 for wool research in Montana, Texas, and Wyoming”

Should the federal government lift the ban on deepwater oil drilling? If not, how do you propose to make up the oil that will not come from those wells? Federal studies said the ban cost 23,000 jobs. Bloomberg reported last week:

“U.S. Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar may lift the federal ban on deep-water oil drilling ‘soon,’ now that the measure has met some of its goals, the government said in court papers.

“Salazar imposed new rules on offshore drilling in waters deeper than 500 feet on July 12, after a New Orleans judge found an earlier moratorium too broad. The rules set multiple milestones to be reached before drilling may resume.”

Do you believe that global warming is real? The majority of Americans polled say this is a serious issue. In California, voters are deeply split about whether to repeal the state’s global warming law that requires power plants, factories and vehicles to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

A Rasmussen poll this summer showed that “Most voters (62%) continue to regard global warming as a serious issue.” The poll found, “Thirty-four percent (34%) do not share the concern about global warming. Forty-five percent (45%) say global warming is primarily caused by long-term planetary trends. Forty percent (40%) feel human activity is the main contributor.”

But ABC News says poll results on this question are all over the map and that it depends on how the question is asked.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a page on its website dedicated to its report about Climate Change Indicators. The federal government says that “average sea level worldwide is projected to rise up to two feet by the end of this century. This rise would eliminate approximately 10,000 square miles of land in the United States.” By comparison, one square mile is 640 acres. Read more


Why Today’s Cars May Not Need Oil Changes Every 3,000 Miles

I know I am wasting money, but I just can’t seem to bring myself to go against my dad’s advice from 35 years ago.

He changed his car’s oil every 3,000 miles. So do I. But today’s cars don’t need oil changes as often as we think, according to a New York Times story. In fact, you could probably go twice as long between oil changes and have no problems at all, the story says. Changing oil too often could even be considered wasteful and an environmental issue.

I may be coming around to a new way of thinking after reading the Times piece:

“The California Integrated Waste Management Board ran public service announcements for several years about ‘the 3,000-mile myth,’ urging drivers to wait longer between oil changes. Although the information is a few years old, the board has a list of cars on its Web site and how often they need oil changes. The concern is not only the cost to drivers, but the environmental impact of throwing away good oil, said Mark Oldfield, a recycling specialist for the agency.

“But the situation is not that clear cut, according to Robert Sutherland, a Pennzoil scientist who works at Shell Global Solutions.

“Rather than picking a number, Mr. Sutherland said, he recommends following what your owner’s manual advises.

Here is a company that, for $25, will analyze your vehicle’s oil and “gauge the health of your engine.” It is sort of like a blood test for your car (or boat or plane or motorcycle.) Take a look at a sample report.
Read more

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