Marquette University students from the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication have teamed with a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to produce reporting that includes a four-day series this week focusing on threats to the Great Lakes.
Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Egan’s “A Watershed Moment: Great Lakes at a Crossroads” seeks to inform readers about the enormous environmental destruction caused by invasive species entering the seven magnificent lakes and all inland waters from around the globe.
Egan, a Pulitzer Prize-finalist who has reported on the Great Lakes for the news organization for several years, worked with Marquette students while spending the 2013-2014 academic year at the university as part of the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism.
“Watershed Moment” began Sunday with a story about how zebra mussels and quagga mussels have turned the lakes’ ecosystem upside down. Today’s installment examines how both types of mussels got here in ships’ ballast tanks and considers whether future such invasions can be stopped. Tomorrow, the series explores how Isle Royale National Park ordered its ferry to disinfect water in ballast tanks. The finale on Wednesday will delve into how invasive species have spread from the lakes to across America.
“The consequences of opening a nautical freeway into the Great Lakes for globe-roaming freighters (has) proved disastrous – at least 56 non-native organisms have since been discovered in the lakes, and the majority arrived as stowaways in freighter ballast tanks,” Egan writes in the series. “These invaders have decimated native fish populations and rewired the way energy flows through the world’s largest freshwater system, sparking an explosion in seaweed growth that rots in reeking pockets along thousands of miles of shoreline. … The hope is the new ballast discharge regulations will shut the door to new invasions. The reality: The Environmental Protection Agency has already acknowledged they are not stringent enough to do that job.”
The O’Brien Fellowship resulted from an $8.3 million gift announced last year and enables journalists to spend an academic year doing world-class reporting – and to integrate Marquette students into their projects, giving them first-hand journalism experience. Earlier during his fellowship, Egan reported on what a new federal study revealed about the effectiveness of government efforts to protect the lakes.
Lori Bergen, dean of the College of Communication, thanked Eganand the Journal Sentinelfor enabling the students to do viable reporting as part of his fellowship. One student, Erin Caughey, not only assisted him with research throughout her senior year – but also worked on the project and other digital journalism efforts in the Journal Sentinel newsroom as an O’Brien Fellowship summer intern. In addition to shooting video and taking photos, Caughey contributed an interactive timeline and served as online producer.
“Our students have gained invaluable experience by working with an experienced reporter to produce journalism that will affect Milwaukee and beyond,” Bergen said. “Dan’s series is another example of experiential learning. We are thrilled that it is part of the O’Brien Fellowship.”
Egan’s editors said that having the academic year to work on “Watershed Moment” helped providehim the time to explore such an important but complicated issue in depth.
“The public’s growing knowledge of this threat to the Great Lakes – and ways to stop it – is certain to have a major impact on policy going forward,” Journal Sentinel Managing Editor George Stanley said.
Lillian Thomas was one of three O’Brien Fellows based at Marquette this year. Reporter Hal Bernton integrated several students into the investigative series, “Losing Ground: The Struggle to Reduce CO2,” The Seattle Times published in May. Thomas, an assistant managing editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, used her time at the university to produce the series “Poor Health: Poverty and Scarce Resources in U.S. Cities,” which focuses on how poverty and health intersect. Students contributed to Thomas’ work, parts of which the Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service published as well.
The Post-Gazette and The Times also each have a Diederich College student as an intern in their respective newsrooms this summer as part of the O’Brien Fellowship.
The inaugural O’Brien Fellow was Meg Kissinger of the Journal Sentinel, who examined Milwaukee County’s troubled mental health system during the 2012-13 academic year. Groups of graduate and undergraduate students contributed to her series, “Chronic Crisis: A System That Doesn’t Heal.” Kissinger’s efforts earned a George A. Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors.
In October, the O’Brien Fellowship hosted “Milwaukee County’s Mental Health: Solutions to a Chronic Crisis,” a two-day conference that included a community discussion about the issues the series brought to light. The series has led to many reforms, including several bills signed by Gov. Scott Walker and another measure aimed at creating a new governing body to oversee mental health care in the county.
Egan, Bernton and Thomas will return to Marquette to join discussions about their O’Brien Fellowship work at the second annual conference, set for October 9-10.
Marquette recently announced the O’Brien Fellows for 2014-2015: Brandon Loomis of The Arizona Republic, Raquel Rutledge of the Journal Sentinel and Marjorie Valbrun, who will be aligned with The Washington Post. They will report on water scarcity, food additives and welfare reform, respectively.