By Bill Kovarik and Sarah Vig
From the standpoint of public information, the TVA Fly Ash Disaster was unlike any other environmental disaster in recent history.
Immediately following the spill, TVA’s public relations department attempted to spin the catastrophic failure of an earthen dam holding back a billion gallons of wet coal fly ash as a “sudden, accidental release” of “inert material not harmful to the environment.” At the same time, they refused to release material safety data sheets to the public (including affected residents), and underestimated the amount of ash that had been “released” by a factor of three.
But soon after the spill, pictures from residents on the ground showing the immensity of the damage up close, and aerial shots from Southwings (a conservation aviation non-profit) flights showing the extent of the damage in hundreds of acres, kept the issue alive. Quick responses from environmental non-profits like United Mountain Defense and Appalachian Voices among others led to independent testing and analysis that showed elevated levels of toxic heavy metals long before the EPA released their results from the immediate spill area, weeks after the spill.
TVA was playing by the old rulebook, hoping that by stonewalling inquiries from the public and the media, watering down information, and waiting to release sensitive data, it might ease the sense of outrage. Unfortunately for them, new media such as blogs, e-mail listservs, Twitter and YouTube have blown open the older, narrower channels of information, allowing citizens and advocates the ability to quickly and effectively disperse personal narratives, photo and video documentation, and independent scientific data.
With this shift in how information is distributed comes a change in the way credibility is determined. An increasingly skeptical and discerning audience demands more than just the company line. Nevertheless, traditional media are still important. On the internet, there is no filter except search engines and no barriers to access except having use of a computer; however, though the amount of information available has no limit, the amount of information actually paid attention to is still finite. While the traditional media are no longer the only gatekeepers, it remains an important way to gain in credibility and readership, such as when The New York Times picked up the data from samples gathered by Appalachian Voices and Appalachian State University.
Arizona State University communications professor Don Gilmor noted recently that advocacy groups “are doing something infinitely closer to journalism than they ever have before.” Speaking at a Society of Environmental Journalists seminar,
Gilmor said he was “OK with advocates being a part of this ecosystem of the media…. I think advocates have a huge role to play in the future of journalism.” In some ways though it seems that advocates and citizens have had to step in to fill the void left by slashed investigative budgets at journalism institutions across the country, and as laudatory as it is that they have gained the skills required to do so credibly, it still raises the question of why though the media retain the title of gatekeeper, they have relinquished that of watchdog, and what stories have gone uncovered because of it.