ROCK PORT, Mo. — Journalism students from the University of Missouri traveled throughout the northwest corner of the state for three days in late September to learn about — and report on — the record 2011 floods along the Missouri River and the enduring consequences of that disaster on the area’s agriculture and natural resources.
As part of MU’s Sonja Hillgren Farm Journal Science and Agricultural Journalism Field Reporting Institute, the 13 students and 10 traveling faculty immersed themselves in the process of reporting multiple-source stories on complicated issues. In this case, they covered the often-conflicting management issues for the river, from flood prevention to wildlife conservation and navigation. Along the way, students interviewed flood-affected farmers, conservation scientists and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and law-enforcement officials to gain a broader understanding of last year’s events. Most faculty members were working professionals who volunteered their weekend to be part of the learning experience.
“So many stories today about complex issues — in science, environment and agriculture — are written by people who have never been to the places where issues are happening and have never met the people who are in the middle of them,” said Bill Allen, assistant professor of science journalism in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Science and Agricultural Journalism Program. “To be thorough and responsible, and do good journalism, you have to go where the story’s happening.”
For that reason, the course exposed budding reporters to the need to gather multiple perspectives in their stories and the mechanics of boots-on-the-ground research to help them produce more accurate, detailed and engaging stories.
With the help of Jim Crawford, MU Extension natural resource engineer, Allen assembled an agenda that investigated the flood, its long-term effects and the benefits of the research gained at Graves-Chapple Research Center.
Jeff Powelson, private land conservationist with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), organized an on-the-water tour of the river with MDC fisheries researchers who study endangered species. He also led visits to Savannah-area fields where farmers have used the federal Conservation Reserve Program to establish wildlife habitat with Natural Resources Conservation Service and MDC specialists.
Students also visited the flooded community of Corning, Mo., and sand dunes created by the 2011 flood with Atchison County Sheriff Dennis Martin. They learned about levee construction and river management from Jud Kneuvean, chief of the emergency management branch for the Corps’ Kansas City District, and visited Steve Klute of Klute Farms near Westboro, Mo. — even getting a chance to ride in a combine during Klute’s corn harvest.
“They were a very intelligent and enthusiastic group,” Klute said. “They are the journalists who will be telling agriculture’s story in the future, and if they stay as open-minded as I saw, we are in good hands.”
On the last evening, the class had dinner with local farmers at KJ’s in Westboro, where David and Sue Laur and Tracey and Holly Barnes discussed their experiences farming across Atchison County. Then, under a starlit sky, they traveled to a nearby farm to walk beneath one of the dozens of wind turbines whose flashing red lights dot the rural landscape.
Allen said the program offered not only opportunities for face-to-face interviews but also cross-cultural experiences for students who don’t have agricultural or environmental-science backgrounds. “In the end, they see and understand the connections,” Allen said. “That’s not something you can lecture about in the classroom. You can’t even show that in the field. You have to create an environment where they can explore it on their own.”
“I got to see a different perspective,” said Sonja Gjerde, a junior science and agricultural journalism major from Bolivar, Mo. “All these different factors come into play — all these things you have to consider — and you have to find a balance.”
The students practiced learning how to find that balance as they wrote stories from their daily reporting efforts.
“This isn’t a standard field trip; they’ve got to get stories,” Allen said.
With the help of traveling faculty with backgrounds that ranged from hydrology, entomology, and natural resources policy to folklore and science reporting, students wrote those stories each night for the Institute’s blog, MUddy Boots News. They also worked with a photojournalist to select photos for their work.
That made for long nights that replicate the responsibilities of a working reporter, Allen said. To complete the course, students will also write longer stories to address issues they uncovered on the trip.
“I appreciate people sharing their lives with us to create this learning lab-like environment, where basically we’re using them as a test site for trying to understand these complicated issues,” said Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, a journalism graduate student from Seattle. “To see how they operate in the field and struggle through those challenges in real time was valuable.”
To view the students’ daily reports, go to www.MUddybootsnews.wordpress.com.