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What lies beneath?



You know that the fight between the Times-Standard and Eureka Reporter is getting down and dirty when the Reporter follows the T-S's multi-part series on homelessness with a three-part series on dioxin in the bay.

Like the homeless series, this is a subject that deserves serious discussion. If there is one thing that connects us it's the water. If our living doesn't come off the bay, our dinner often does. And many of us spend our weekends wading in it, or surfing or paddling around on it.

Dioxin is one of those things most people would rather not think about, especially while biting into that grilled oyster burger at the Waterfront Cafe. That's because dioxin has been shown to affect a person's immune system and increases their risk of getting cancer. The county's business boosters don't want you to think about it either. More importantly, they don't want people outside the county, who might think of investing money or spending vacations here, to think about dioxin when thinking about Humboldt Bay.

So you have to give a newspaper credit for devoting three issues and almost 4,200 words to such a downer of subject. The trouble is that you get the feeling from reading the three stories that the Reporter would have ignored the subject altogether had not the State Water Resources Control Board listed Humboldt Bay as impaired for dioxin contamination under the federal Clean Water Act.

It's an odd series. To begin with, the controversy, as the Reporter sees it, rests with the negative impacts of the listing, not of the dioxin. And the solution it focuses on is a possibility that the county can get the state to reverse its decision, not on ways to clean up the water. It reminded me of stories I used to have to write when I worked for a San Francisco business weekly, which would focus on such topics as the difficulty corporate executives have managing a company after they've laid off hundreds of workers. But there, arguably, our subscriber base of 15,000 Armani suit-wearing execs would be more interested in evading a regulatory process than fixing an environmental problem. The Eureka Reporter's readership base, on the other hand, consists of residents of all stripes. One would think they would be at least as interested in the health and environmental ramifications of dioxin in the water as in the economic effects of the listing.

Now, I confess that I've given money to Humboldt Baykeeper, because of a naïve concept I can't shake that ocean water should be clean. If you read the Reporter stories, you'd know that it's Baykeeper's fault for causing this whole dioxin listing problem, by having the nerve to send the worst of its samples of dioxin-tainted bay water to the state water board. I also admit that as someone who came pretty darn close to dying of cancer not too long ago, I'm a bit sensitive about cancer-causing chemicals in my Crab Louie.

On the other hand, my father, grandfather, uncle, grand uncles and step-uncles were all in the food business. The livelihood of my family depended on people eating food and feeling good about the food they ate. Had New York State listed Bronx County for nitrate impairment, our small delicatessen would have been a goner.

The whole point of in-depth reporting is to get at all sides of a controversy so that the reader comes away with a good understanding of a complex problem. While I think objectivity in journalism is a farce - a reporter stops being objective when she chooses one story to cover over another, and one source for information over another - all stories require balance and proper perspective. What's more important: The listing under the federal Clean Water Act, or dioxin in the water? And in considering balance and perspective it's important to go back to the reader. How would your reader answer that question?

Often news organizations avoid reporting bad news because they think readers don't want to hear it. But I think they don't give their readers enough credit. Readers, I believe, want news agencies to report problems without inflating them, and to explain both the problem and possible solutions. What was most missing from the three-part series was a layout of what has actually been done in the past to clean up the bay, how effective those steps have been and what could and possibly should be done in the future.

Could the listing be a good thing in the short and long run, by bringing in state and federal dollars? The Reporter said this: "According to county officials, economic impacts to the area as a result of the listing might mean additional and costly scrutiny for dioxin testing for development permits and restoration activities for wetland and marsh habitats." For developers that's bad news, but for those in the area who like wetlands and marsh, that sounds as if dollars will be headed for good projects. The series says that the listing will force the regional water quality control board to initiate a plan to identify the contamination and plot a course to clean it. Maybe I'm crazy, but couldn't that be seen as a good thing?

Emphasizing only the economic ramifications of listing Humboldt County for dioxin impairment is a little like the mayor of Amity screaming at Chief Brody for closing the beaches during tourist season just because a 30-foot Great White shark had discovered that the shoreline was an all-you-can-eat buffet. Whether you sided with the mayor or the chief, I'd only hope the Amity Herald had reported both sides with balance and perspective.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.

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