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The National Science Foundation hopes that more environmental science news generated by objective sources can cut through the rancor of political advocacy and help residents in rural Western communities and Indian reservations make more informed decisions.

The foundation awarded the University of Montana’ School of Journalism $250,000 this week to explore ways of enhancing both the quality and quantity of environmental science news as it pertains to some of Montana's most rural communities.

Alison Perkins, adjunct journalism instructor at UM, said the grant will help develop a model for reporting environmental science news, using student reporters who are studying environmental science and natural resource journalism at the graduate level as writers.

“I think there’s a climate that’s not really open to environmental stories because there’s the fear that they come from an advocacy position,” said Perkins. “But those are two very distinct things. What we’re trying to do is environmental science journalism, reporting on the science behind the issues.”

The debates surrounding key environmental issues facing the West often take place in a vacuum, where choices are shaped by one’s political orientation and the opinions generated by the local rumor mill.

While no single news source can correct one’s staunch opinion, strong scientific reporting may help inject some facts into the debate, helping rural voters make a more informed decision.

“There’s so much we need to understand about what’s going on in rural and Native communities – the Bakken, oil and gas drilling, coal mining and what’s going on up in Canada,” said Perkins. “The NSF is interested in getting people to make a more informed decision about these issues.”

Residents in rural areas face new and challenging decisions on environmental and natural resource issues at a time when access to local news on such topics has decreased, Perkins said.

The new program, dubbed Science Source, will serve as something of a news desk, working with editors in print, radio, online and television to identify and produce stories that fit the media’s specific needs and that reach the largest audience possible.

“There have been a lot of models that have tried to come up with ways of sharing resources,” said Perkins. “It’s kind of like an AP desk, but more hands-on for people. Making news financially viable is a difficult thing in this day and age. Having a good funding source can certainly help us get started.”

Perkins developed Science Source and is now working to establish partnerships with news organizations across the state, from the 5 p.m. local news to the smaller weeklies on Montana’s seven Indian reservations.

Perkins, an interdisciplinary research scientist and educator, brings experience in television production, journalism and science education. She said many scientists have often expressed frustration, suggesting their work is rarely picked up or distributed by the media.

“Scientists are always putting information out there, and they’re always wondering why their work isn’t being published,” Perkins said. “It’s because editorial control is important in journalism. If we can develop this model so editors at both ends are happy with the project, it’ll be huge first step.”

In concept, Perkins said, the stories will focus on regional issues as they relate to particular communities. How does development of the Bakken Formation impact Sidney? How does natural gas drilling in the Upper Green River Basin impact air and water quality in the town of Pinedale, Wyo.? What effects will the tar sands in Canada have on communities poised along the proposed pipeline corridor?

Perkins said the university’s scientists who work on the issues provide a good and unbiased source for the school’s graduate-level students in environmental and natural resource reporting.

“Science Source will serve as an intermediary, feeling out the stories editors want, what format they want them in, and working with our reporters to format the stories in a way that still provides our partners editorial control,” she said.

“UM has the resources that serve the environmental science beat. If we can change the quantity and quality of science reporting in these rural communities, maybe we can move forward and expand to the Intermountain West.”

Missoulian reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at mkidston@missoulian.com or by Twitter @martinkidston.

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