Indiana University

Indiana University School of Journalism

Class project leads to three-part WFIU series

Gena Asher | Aug. 5, 2013
pesticide drift
Photo by Sehvilla Mann
Larry Edwards of Franklin was repairing shingles on this barn in 2010 when a low-flying crop duster sprayed pesticide on him. Grad student Sehvilla Mann's piece on pesticide drift examined the effects of the spray on Edwards' health.
Digging through data on the impact of pesticides in Indiana for a class project, Sehvilla Mann was a little intimidated. But when the data yielded results, and the results led to human sources, the project came alive. Mann’s work culminated in a three-part investigative piece that recently aired on WFIU/Indiana Public Media.

Pesticide Drift” was broadcast on WFIU 103.7 FM, the local public radio affiliate, July 30 through Aug. 1, and appeared as an online story on the station’s website. The series, presented in three four-minute segments, examined how pesticides affect farmers, crops and human health.

“When I was hired part-time this summer at WFIU, I hoped the story would see the light of day,” said Mann, who previously had interned at the station as part of her studies in the digital journalism sequence. “I was picturing it as a one-off but (news director) Sara Wittmeyer saw it as a series.”

The story began as a project for J460 Investigative Reporting, an undergraduate course that Mann took as independent study with the permission of assistant professor Gerry Lanosga. The coursework includes research in public documents to develop stories.

Mann and her teammates, undergraduates Max McCombs and Jackson Caldwell, obtained data from the Indiana Office of the State Chemist, the state’s overseer of pesticide use. Lanosga helped them analyze what they were reading, she said, as well as coached her and her teammates on how to keep digging to find details.

“My goal with investigative reporting, as with other advanced journalism classes, is to have the students doing real work rather than classroom exercises,” Lanosga said.

From the data, the teammates identified the issue of “drift,” where pesticide applied to an area of acreage to control weeds or pests travels on the wind to nearby crops that cannot withstand the chemical’s effects. The team contacted people named in the reports, then traveled around the state to interview them about their experiences.

“Combing through data is daunting as well as rather mundane until you find something exciting,” Mann said. “Research is not always riveting until you start making some connections.”

sehvilla
Courtesy WFIU
Sehvilla Mann adapted a class project into her three-part series on pesticide drift.
Mann, who worked in public radio as a freelancer before coming to IU, took along her camera and recorder, always on the lookout for potential audio features. She captured the interviews and shot photos, which formed the basis of the WFIU project. For the class, the team had a 2,500-word “sprawling piece,” which Mann adapted for the 12-minute package.

“This took a while, as the topic takes effort to explain without jargon,” she said.

She separated the parts into three: one defining pesticide drift; one explaining how drift affects a specific crop – tomatoes – and an Indiana company, Red Gold; and the third profiling a man injured when a crop duster sprayed him with pesticide while he was working on his farm.

For audio, Mann said she considered what the audience needs to know to understand the piece. For example, some audio included the beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up, so her narrative had to set the stage for the listener to give context for the background sounds.

When she finished the audio package, she turned her attention to versions for the station’s website, which features online stories for much of the material it airs. Mann said she had to concentrate on setting the scene in words for the reader who hasn’t heard the package. But the written version also includes more specific information – percentages instead of generalizations, for example – as well as links to websites about the topic.

"The series is top notch, and I’m thrilled to see it grow from a class project to something that will run across the state,” said WFIU’s Wittmeyer. “Sehvilla took a complicated issue and brought it to life with great interviews, sound and extraordinary writing.”

Mann plans to finish her degree in December, and said she hopes to continue working in public media and in investigative reporting. She credits Lanosga and other professors with helping her pursue this goal.

“I came here because, when I visited, the professors seemed to really care,” she said. “And that’s been the case. Apply yourself and they are willing to help. New students should take advantage of that.”

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