What We Can Learn From West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Water Crisis Coverage

Feb 24, 2014

Members of the West Virginia National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package draw water sample to determine levels of contamination.
Credit West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs via Flickr
When thousands of gallons of a chemical spilled into a river in West Virginia in January, leading to a water crisis that affected over 300,000 people, West Virginia Public Broadcasting provided comprehensive coverage on the radio, on television, on their site and on social media. Their news team has been thanked by the community for their coverage, and recognized by public media sites Current and Protect My Public Media.

The coverage didn't come out of thin air, though. Before the spill, the staff spent time taking digital news training, launched a new website, and created a digital editor position to oversee it all. After seeing their work, we asked Digital Editor Dave Mistich to share some lessons learned from what worked, and what didn't, from the past few weeks of covering the Elk River Chemical Spill.

This post had hundreds of shares on Facebook and prompted engaging conversation about the water crisis.
Explain What You Know -- and What You Don’t 

Some of the most popular posts during the first days of the water crisis were explanatory posts that listed what the news staff knew - and what they were still trying to figure out. The posts were informative, readable and provided something different from what others were doing. They also prompted hundreds of comments, shares, likes and contributions of even more questions that people wanted answered, Mistich said.

Reporters Ashton Marra and Dave Mistich were awarded a West Virginia Public Broadcasting storyteller award for their work covering the water crisis.

Be Comprehensive by Aggregating and Linking Out

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has provided over 200 news posts and many more Tweets and Facebook posts about the chemical spill since January that cover everything from the science to the politics of what happened. The news staff were able to provide as much useful coverage as possible by directing people to other news resources, including using the NPR API to pull in related station stories.  WVPB proved themselves to be a reliable and trustworthy source for the news that mattered about the spill and its aftermath, and  have had hundreds of new followers on Twitter, and a record number of visitors on their site, according to Mistich.

An example of many posts that contained live video and audio, as well as the archives, from public hearings and press events.

Provide Primary Sources

Imagine being in someone’s shoes that hasn’t had clean water for a week - they want to know everything they can about the situation. WVPB provided links to relevant documents, lists of clean water sources, as well as full video and audio streams of relevant press conferences and public hearings. “We would record a press conference or hearing and have the audio up on our site almost as soon as the event had ended,” Mistich said. “As a result, I noticed on Chartbeat that people were engaged with this content for minutes on end (which everyone knows is a lifetime in the 21st century.)”

WVPB used all forms of storytelling to cover the crisis, including visuals.

Do What You Can and Learn as You Go

The Charleston bureau of WVPB, all of whom didn’t have clean water, was pulled in many directions during their coverage, including stories for NPR, PBS NewsHour, live talk shows and more. By thinking about what the audience needed and having practiced through digital training, the newsroom did a great job at juggling and serving their community. Sometimes, a Tweet will suffice when there isn’t time for a whole blog post. Or, a quick blog post with a few links and embedded video is better than spending time creating an audio transcript. By learning what works and what doesn't, WVPB has been able to continue learning from successes and failures as they go.

Follow along with WVPB's continued coverage from the fallout of the chemical spill on their site, Twitter and Facebook. You can also find Dave Mistich and other WVPB reporters on Twitter here.