September 23, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Cities nationwide are wrestling with how to clear their streets of tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands, in some cases — of abandoned cars. Governing.com, a website for local government leaders, points to research that says abandoned cars attract crime.

Oakland, California, sees about 17,000 abandoned vehicles every year.  Philadelphia has 30,000 abandoned vehicles to clean up.

Small towns have similar problems. This week, Janesville, Wisconsin, stepped up its action against abandoned cars on city streets. Hawaii County, Hawaii, is about to pass a measure that would allow the local government to sweep up abandoned cars from properties “free of charge,” which would encourage people to act faster to get rid of junk vehicles and not allow them to attract more of the same.

Governing.com says:

It’s a variation on the broken-windows theory of policing. If you tolerate small crimes, big crimes may follow. In the case of abandoned vehicles, it’s almost cause and effect.

The article says abandoned cars are often used as drop zones for drugs and stolen goods. That sets up an environment that attracts violence.

Oakland is changing the way it handles the problem by moving the responsibility away from the police department to the Department of Transportation, which has more manpower to handle things like debris removal.

One research project published by a professor at Arizona State University in 2008 identified airport parking lots as magnets for abandoned cars because it can take weeks to distinguish between an abandoned car and one just parked there while the owner is away. That 2008 research found some interesting leads that are good starting places for journalists to go on tours of abandoned cars in your town:

Abandoned vehicles are problems in a variety of areas, ranging from sparsely inhabited tribal lands, through rural areas, to large cities. Even within cities, people may dump cars around industrial wastelands (brownfields), in large parking lots, along train or highway buffer lands, in vacant lots, on city streets, in remote parks, or even in cemeteries.  People abandon different types of vehicles for different reasons. Those discarded in less populated areas are usually older cars and trucks of little value. Abandoned vehicles in urban areas may also include stolen cars. Among these will be autos that are intact, partly stripped, or burned-out.

Remote resort areas such as Key West, Fla., and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., attract old cars that people use as short-distance island transportation. But the junkers eventually age beyond repair and are abandoned. The problem is compounded by the added cost of removing junk cars from remote locations. Key West and other low-lying islands in the Florida Keys are further burdened when hurricanes or tropical storms damage many cars.

Interestingly, this variation is not restricted to expensive vacation sites. The related problem of “disposable transportation” has been identified in some depressed urban areas in the United States and England. People use older cars, usually unregistered, for short-distance transportation in urban neighborhoods. The cars eventually break down and are left where they fall.

Researchers say one abandoned car seems to attract people who dump their old cars there, too. Cars are full of all sorts of toxic materials, including oil, gasoline, transmission and brake fluids, battery acid and grease. Eventually, all of that could make its way into soil, water and streets as the vehicles decay. It is an especially big problem when owners dump cars in wetlands, creeks or rivers.

Will unions support the agreement that averted a railroad strike?

The nation breathed a sigh of relief last week when unions and railroad companies reached an agreement that prevented a national railroad strike. But there are persistent signs that the workers still do not know much about the agreement, and its approval is not assured.

US News and World Report points out that some union members protested this week, ahead of voting:

Nearly a dozen BNSF workers gathered near Minot, North Dakota, Wednesday with homemade signs declaring “We demand more!!” and “We will not back down.” Another group of a half dozen workers stood outside their worksite in Olathe, Kansas, with signs saying “Railroad greed driving inflation” and “Greedy railroads harming nations supply chain.”

It remains to be seen whether those concessions are enough to get workers to vote for these deals. A branch of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union rejected a deal last week that didn’t include those extra days off, so they are back at the table now working on a new pact. Two smaller unions did approve their deals, but the nine other unions will be counting their votes at various times over the next two months.

The two biggest unions that held out the longest — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union that represents engineers, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union that represents conductors — aren’t expected to report the results of their votes until mid November. Members of those unions are still waiting to see all the details of the deals that Biden announced last Thursday because lawyers are still finalizing everything before the full agreements get released.

That puts any potential for a strike out beyond the midterm elections, which mitigates the potential political impact of the talks for Biden and the Democrats. If any of the unions do reject their contracts, Congress could still be forced to step in.

CNN points out that unions have been more willing lately to reject tentative deals:

Rank and file union members working in other industries have recently balked at approving their deals, even when recommended by their unions’ leadership. While most union contracts are ratified, there have been some very high-profile examples of angry union members voting no.

About 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers union at farm equipment maker John Deere went on strike last fall after rejecting a lucrative tentative agreement. That rejected offer included immediate raises in their base pay of 5% to 6%, and additional wage increases later in the contract that could have increased average pay by about 20% over the six years. And it had a cost-of-living adjustment that would give them additional pay based up other rate inflation.

But more than 90% of the UAW members at Deere voted no and went on strike, and then stayed on strike after rejecting a subsequent deal. They finally returned to work after five weeks after a third vote on a similar package passed.

Striking workers at cereal maker Kellogg also rejected a tentative deal and decided to stay on strike in December before finally agreeing to deal weeks later.

And only 50.3% of film production workers voted in favor of a deal last fall that achieved virtually all bargaining goals of their union, a contract that averted a strike by 63,000 technicians, artisans and craftspeople which could have brought production of movies, television and streaming shows to a halt.

One of the railroad unions has already rejected the proposed new contract. We will know what the other unions have to say in a few weeks. It could put us at the edge of a strike again just before the midterm elections.

Telling big stories through small examples

When I teach writing classes at Poynter, I adapt lessons I have learned from the greatest writing coach I know, my colleague Roy Peter Clark. About 25 years ago I heard Roy talk about how journalists can explain big, complex issues by using small, personal examples. Here is such a story by The Washington Post that explains the root of the friction behind the contentious contract talks between unions and the railroad industry.

The story begins with a train engineer who skipped a doctor’s appointment to comply with a work attendance policy that a company had recently put in place. A couple of weeks later, the engineer died of a heart attack.

Just as Roy taught us years ago, this Post story started with the close-up example, then pulled back to put it in perspective and explain the larger issue. Then the story came back to the engineer’s widow to, as Roy would say, bring the story full circle.

I began to think of the story as a predictable, easy-to-digest frame:

  • Once upon a time
  • Suddenly
  • Fortunately (or even worse)
  • As it turns out

Take a look at the story and you will understand the emotions behind the union-railroad negotiation and the details of the agreement that union members still have to approve or reject in the coming weeks. The story makes readers feel and understand. Roy says great stories do both.

Learn more about this concept from this 2004 essay that Roy wrote for Poynter. Let me show you how we use this same concept in telling stories for TV.

Can you blame green energy policies for 2022’s gasoline price increases?

Wind turbines work in Livermore, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

While gasoline prices have been steadily falling for months, they are still higher than when Joe Biden took office. No doubt you have heard midterm election commercials blaming Biden and Democrats for the gasoline prices.  Is there any evidence that green energy policies inflated what you pay at the pump?

Our colleagues over at PolitiFact dove into the data and looked at GOP claims that the Keystone XL pipeline expansion that Biden canceled would have lowered gasoline prices. In fact, PolitiFact quotes experts who say the pipeline “would have had a minuscule impact on gas prices. If the new pipeline were online, it would add only about half-million barrels of oil production per day to the 95 million currently produced.” And the pipeline was not projected to be online until early next year.

PolitiFact heard from Hugh Daigle, a professor in the University of Texas, Austin’s Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, who said:

The most recent spike in prices over the summer was due to a combination of increased demand as the U.S. moved into a summer of travel with greatly reduced pandemic-related concerns and reduced supply due to issues with refinery capacity, all superimposed on a background of high oil and gas prices brought about by the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, PolitiFact points out, since oil prices are largely the product of global supply and demand, Democrats cannot truthfully claim that their energy policies have caused gasoline prices to drop since mid-summer.

STD cases rising sharply in US

The Associated Press reports:

Infections rates for some STDs, including gonorrhea and syphilis, have been rising for years. Last year the rate of syphilis cases reached its highest since 1991 and the total number of cases hit its highest since 1948. HIV cases are also on the rise, up 16% last year.

The increases in syphilis and other STDs may have several causes, experts say. Testing and prevention efforts have been hobbled by years of inadequate funding, and spread may have gotten worse — especially during the pandemic — as a result of delayed diagnosis and treatment. Drug and alcohol use may have contributed to risky sexual behavior. Condom use has been declining.

Experts say another contributing factor is “a surge in sexual activity as people emerged from COVID-19 lockdowns.”

Google Trends shows “how to break an arm” searches increase in Russia

Who knows what this means exactly, but it is curious that right after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of the population to fight in Ukraine, Google noticed a spike in the number of people searching for “как сломать руку в домашних условиях,” which translates to “how to break an arm at home.”

(Google Translate)

The suspicion is it could be people looking for ways to avoid being conscripted into service.

Putin’s speech happened at 2 a.m. EDT and the spike began to show up within two hours.

(Google Trends)

Hindustan Times reports:

As Google Trends rank search items from zero to 100, zero representing the point of least interest and 100 the most, after Vladimir Putin’s address searches for ways to break arm at home rose to 38 out of 100.

One-way flights out of Russia were selling out rapidly on Thursday a day after Putin’s announcement, Reuters reported.

Traffic on the eastern Finnish border with Russia increased over night as well on Wednesday and the surge in activity continued on Thursday morning as well, the Finland border guard said.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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