Saturday, January 1, 2011

Proposed ~ an award for excellence in journalism covering the nuclear industry

There is no shortage of coverage. The question is how good is it?

type keysThis is a proposal for the American Nuclear Society (ANS) to annually make awards to the mainstream news media for excellence in coverage of nuclear science, engineering, and the global industry. (see disclaimer below)

The purpose of the award(s) is to recognize excellence in covering a complex subject. The awards will send a message to the mainstream media that the nuclear industry recognizes excellence in media coverage of the profession and the industry. The published items receiving the awards will become benchmarks for other media to follow.

The nuclear renaissance faces some challenging times ahead. Examples of issues that will get media coverage include financing and raising money, changes to electricity markets, competition from other fuels like natural gas, and progress by state-owned nuclear energy firms that are gaining market share in Asia. The U.S. is sliding into second or third place standing globally with a technology it developed and made a commercial success.

Background

Nuclear science, engineering, and the global industry are difficult topics for general assignment reporters in any media. Retrenchment in the media have diminished the number of science reporters working at the nation's top 50 daily newspapers and elsewhere. Outside of the trade press, few reporters have technical expertise.

Instead, often they rely on the “he said / she said” model when covering the nuclear industry. It’s a lot more interesting and most readers do not object to the entertainment. Even smart guys can be wrong. Al Gore once famously testified that nuclear reactors only come in one size – large. The bright commercial future for small modular reactors is a story the news media is just beginning to grasp.

Online comments of news media coverage of the nuclear industry have generated many critical reviews, and praise, about the quality of mainstream journalism coverage of the nuclear industry. There is no shortage of coverage. The issue is how good is it? Some examples leave you wondering about the answer to that question.

OopsIn 2009 the Bloomberg wire service confused an inventory of yellowcake with weapons grade materials. Although the inventory was held by an investment bank, the story genuinely worried what the Wall Street pin stripe crowd might do with it.

In 2010 the New York Times published an OP ED by Bob Herbert which was so off the mark that the normally staid Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) called it “a hatchet job.”

Even anti-nuclear groups sometimes can’t get their facts straight. For instance, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published an article on nuclear safety that took seriously some misguided humor at a university research reactor. The issue was a bogus sign in the restroom that said, “don’t flush the toilet when the reactor is running.” UCS worried the office building plumbing was tied into the reactor cooling system. (See update below)

On a more serious note, reporters complain that their editors get cross-eyed when they file copy including radiation measurements. The sensational aspects of what the industry considers to be routine events are exploited by TV crews competing for a slot on the 11 PM news.

Finding news stories to praise for their accuracy and even handed treatment of coverage of the nuclear industry can take on the qualities of a scavenger hunt. Some newspapers are posting excellent coverage of the nuclear industry at online blogs which do not appear in the print editions.

reporter2Given the perilous financial position of some newspapers, reduced advertising budgets have diminished the number of physical pages a paper can print, the socalled "news hole." This results in squeezing out coverage of all manner of important topics and not just nuclear energy.

The result is more coverage of the nuclear industry is online and often in specialized venues rather than the mainstream media. This isn’t a good trend for increasing public understanding of the industry. Nuclear energy blogs, including this one, can’t close the gap. A lot of serious coverage is behind subscription firewalls for the nuclear energy trade press.

Potential examples of awards

There are many types of journalism awards. These are some suggested topics for this one. The actual criteria will need more definition.

* Explanatory journalism which uses the resources of a news organization to illuminate a complex issue involving nuclear science, engineering, or relevant aspects of the global industry which makes the subject more understandable to readers.

-- Examples include reporting, photographs, online material, editorials, or a combination of these media. The focus can be national or international.

* Local reporting of breaking news with an emphasis on the accuracy of the initial and subsequent coverage presented in print or online or both.

* Investigative reporting by an individual or team, presented as a single article or series, in print or online or both.

* Feature writing in a print magazine or online publication.

* OP ED pieces or editorials.

* Books

* Television news, online video, films,

* Other electronic content including radio.

Selection Process

In this proposal I suggest that The ANS Public Information Committee (PIC) solicit nominations through various means (to be determined) and convene a review panel to make the selection. The panel will develop criteria and use them to make the award(s).

The review panel will include at a minimum a nuclear industry professional, a senior member of the faculty of a leading journalism school, and the editor of ANS Nuclear News. One member of PIC will be the point of contact for the group and will also serve on the panel. No member of the selection panel, nor the parent public information committee, will be eligible for an award.

Timing

The panel will have the objective of making an annual award at the ANS winter meeting. The awards will consist of a certificate, plaque, and publicity about them to the mainstream media through press releases to trade and professional publications in the journalism field.

The ANS Public Information Committee has enough time to get the award approved and to complete the process of giving at least one award next November in Washington, DC.

Feedback

Please circulate this proposal to your colleagues in the nuclear industry and news media.

Please post comments here or email comments to me at: djysrv@gmail.com

I will send an updated proposal in February 2011 to the ANS Public Information Committee for its consideration. Note to readers: I am a member of ANS and of the public information committee.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this informal proposal are my own and not necessarily those of the American Nuclear Society.

Update: 01/04/11

David Lachbaum sent an email citing an NRC document about the toilet flushing issue. It turns out the sign was not humor, but it also was not a safety issue. The NRC document cites media interest in the situation as the basis for a report from an inspector.

Significantly, the NRC wrote, "There are no safety implications involved. Contrary to published media reports, this system is not required for emergency cooling of the reactor."

So, while this blog is always willing to publish corrections where the facts require it, I stand by the claim that the incident was blown out of proportion by UCS.

Also, the NRC document makes the point of this blog post, which is that the news media covered the event in a way that created fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the safety of the reactor when there was no technical basis for concern. This is exactly the type of incident where more thoughtful coverage would have produced entirely different news or none at all.

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