TOPIC: Preventive Journalism

Future of food at the Post? Or future of foodies?

Usually I look at the Food section of the Washington Post to see recipes for great dishes I will never make, or read reviews of restaurants I’ll probably never see the inside of.  But this week the Post’s foodies took a stab at serious journalism on the question of the future of food, and I just couldn’t stay away.

Tim Carman reviews a Post-sponsored conference at Georgetown University on malnutrition, obesity, and world hunger with the same strategy he generally uses for Washington’s we try harder restaurant scene:  sprightly comments about the appetizers, a weightier look at the main dishes, and then — do you have room for dessert? — a sweet finish.   Overall, it left me hungry for more something a bit more insightful.


Preventive Journalism Alert: medicines go missing in America

Rob Stein brings an alarming situation to light in the Washington Post: sick people all over the country, including cancer patients, are encountering drug shortages and often are unable to get the most effective treatments available.  Medicines hit by shortages range from important cancer drugs like cytarabine (used against leukemia) to the most basic form of painkiller available to patients suffering serious pain: morphine.  In some cases, manufacturers have stopped making the drugs because higher profits are no longer available after patents run out, and generic manufacturers can’t meet the demand.  Some manufacturers are blaming the Food and Drug Administration, saying its overly stringent safety standards are preventing drugs from reaching the marketplace.  But Stein’s reporting makes it clear that manufacturing problems and supply chain mixups are the more likely culprit.  This is a clear case for urgent federal oversight.

Preventive Journalism update: a repeat of Deepwater Horizon?

Russell Gold and Ben Casselman bring alarming news (not surprising news) that the threat from deep-water oil drilling is still real, and that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was an accident waiting to happen.

The best examples of preventive journalism include solutions to the problem posed and highlight how government can get involved in a constructive way to help.  But with the trend towards more deep-water drilling, we are still living with assurances from industry representatives that the BP/Macondo spill was a once-in-a-lifetime disaster.  From Gold and Casselman’s reporting it looks like the solution we’re looking at for deep-water drilling is a time-tested one:  crossing your fingers.

Preventive Journalism update: Gardiner Harris on FDA and medical tubes

A simple solution to a lethal problem could come with the stroke of a pen — and save lives.  It remains out of reach because the Food and Drug Administration’s unwieldy review process.  Gardiner Harris of the New York Times investigates something  basic and alarming — the misconnection of plastic tubes that are used to deliver medicine, anaesthetic, and other vital substances to patients in America’s hospitals.  The tubes are often very similar, and can easily be fitted into many different devices.  The result can be painful and sudden death when medical workers make errors and connect the wrong tubes — liquid food can be inserted into a vein, and air bubbles can end up in people’s blood streams. (more…)

Preventive Journalism Update: Jacques Leslie and Kettleman City, California

Jacques Leslie has put together a fascinating piece of preventive journalism for Mother Jones (it’s not online yet, so if you don’t subscribe to their magazine, you have to go here to read it).  As with his past work looking at environmental degradation in China, Leslie manages to weave together real life stories and the hard realities of science to describe a challenged community. In this case, the community is Kettleman City, California, where toxic chemicals and public health problems are coming together with frightening cumulative impact. (more…)

Preventive Journalism and the BP oil spill

One of the challenges preventive journalism faces is that it combines so many specialties:  writing, reporting, historical analysis, and evidence-based forecasting.  Skeptics we’ve talked to about this approach say you can’t report on something that’s going to happen in the future.   But as NPR’s Deborah Amis makes clear in her recent interview with Prof. Tad Patzek of the University of Texas, expertise in predicting the future (and avoiding tragedies like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill) is a field we can’t afford not to develop.  (more…)

Posner on preventive thinking, Understanding Government on preventive journalism

7th Circuit Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner offers his own appeal in the Washington Post — calling for a more rational approach to predicting and preparing for natural and man-made disasters.  He says that we seldom are prepared for major disasters because

  • we’re used to fixing problems after the fact
  • people in responsible positions aren’t thinking beyond their own tenure
  • risks of major calamities are hard to predict so we don’t even try

Posner says we “must brace for future crises” because of population increase (meaning more victims) and

the relentless march of technology, whether in oil extraction or financial speculation.

But there is more we can do, and journalists should be at the center of this effort.  (more…)

Preventive Journalism: WSJ on nuclear waste across the U.S.

If you’re not a big fan of oil spills, consider the potential impact of a major release of radioactive material somewhere in the U.S.  Rebecca Smith reports in the Wall Street Journal on a situation that needs urgent attention from concerned citizens, from politicians, and from government agencies.  Thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored in more than thirty states and there is still no national plan for dealing with it.  They have a plan in Finland, and now that Yucca Mountain is out, there may be an eligible storage area in New Mexico.  Are we really going to wait around for this disaster to happen?

Would it Kill You to Read Harper’s?

HarpersMagazine-2000-12-0001It might kill you if you don’t.  One of the nation’s oldest publications, Harper’s has seen its share of wars and corporate misdeeds come and go, and it’s still on the lookout.  Here David Gargill relates why the Hudson River will never be clean of industrial poisons generated by General Electric and others throughout the 20th century.  So many PCBs have been released, stored, or forgotten about that it’s basically hopeless to try to remove them, though the EPA is overseeing a half-billion-dollar cleanup effort to try and get rid of some of them.  Since many people believe the river dredging will end up causing more damage than it mitigates,  the point of this depressing article is that we have to keep a sharp eye on present environmental threats from other megaprojects such as the Marcellus Shale gas exploration effort.  Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica explains why, if we don’t take a very hard look right now, the Marcellus Shale could be the next big problem that it’s already too late to do anything about.

Why Government Needs Strong Independent Reporting

A great example of the connection between solid reporting and improvements in government can be found in the Washington Post‘s initial reporting on the alleged effort by Umar Abdulmutallab to incinerate himself aboard AA 253 in an attempt to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  Three top Post reporters — Dan Eggen, Karen DeYoung, and Spencer Hsu — look at how Abdulmutallab got on the plane and begin tracking the policy and political implications for the Obama administration.  They report that the suspected terrorist was already on a federal watch list — but not on a no-fly list.  Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima manage in the space of 24 hours to get Abdulmutallab’s biography and compare his alleged crime to similar tactics used by Al Qaeda in the recent past.   Peter Slevin gets us inside the plane and talks with the man who first tackled the suspect and helped put out the fire.  But these reporters weren’t alone:  the print edition lists how many other reporters and researchers contributed to these stories — fifteen at least — including journalists in Yemen and London.

If the Post makes a profit this year, it won’t be because of stories like these.  And yet the Post‘s and other papers’ detailed and up-to-the minute reporting will have profound long term effects.  This kind of journalism drives the Sunday talk show narratives, shapes first comments from every congressperson who gets in front of a microphone, and forms initial public opinion.  More important, this kind of reporting shapes the trajectory of government actions from day one — and in an organization the size of the U.S. government, first steps really count. Officials from TSA, the FAA, and from FBI, CIA, and many other agencies will be influenced by reporting from the Post and other national news sources even as they work with information the public may never know.

Approaching the end of a tumultuous year, we can be thankful for the contribution to national security made by professional journalists who, consistently and accurately, help us understand the way world works — and help citizens judge how well our government reacts to threats like the one on American Airlines 253.

Ned Hodgman