Add Electricity to Americans’ Addictions? ... Scary?

UNC News 21 Grad Students Launch Insightful ‘Powering a Nation’ Site

An interactive graphic on the new website Powering a Nation says a lot about America’s insatiable appetite for energy.

The graphic is part of a Web feature called “Down The Lines.” And it’s scary.

A sliding scale (you can move it yourself with your mouse) takes you from the year 1910 to 2010. As the years progress from left to right, two circles below expand. The one on the left represents the nation’s population. The one on the right shows the amount of electricity generated, in kilowatt hours, for that population.

Around 1950, with America’s post-war economy kicking into high gear, per capita electricity use begins to balloon, outpacing population growth. By the 1970s, the dawn of the computer age, the expanding blue dot representing the number of kilowatt hours consumed begins to engulf the screen.

Wired for Plasmas, MP3s, All-Night LEDs and More

Then we get to 2010: U.S. Population, 304,059,000. Electricity generated: 4,110,258,000 kilowatt hours.

The message is clear: America – wired for plasma TVs, desktops, laptops, netbooks, cell phones and iPhones, 24/7 LEDs, air conditioned monster houses and electricity-hungry malls and office buildings – is an electricity junky.

President George W. Bush famously said we’re addicted to oil. Add electricity, too, to our addictions.

The graphic is straightforward, with few words and lots of impact. It illustrates well the power of effective communication. And it’s one of many examples on Powering a Nation that tells the story of a society fueled by tremendous energy consumption.

Powering a Nation is the product of 12 graduate student journalism fellows and two advisers at The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The program at UNC was one of eight around the country chosen by News 21, a project funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education to explore new ways of telling stories – in traditional media and also in the rapidly evolving world of multimedia.

Journalism schools at the University of North Carolina, Arizona State, U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University, The University of Maryland, Northwestern, the University of Southern California, and Syracuse made up the eight primary institutions in News 21. They examined subjects as varied as the American West, the explosion of charter schools, and Latino America.

Fellows from four other “affiliate” institutions – Harvard, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas – joined the teams at those eight universities.

At the University of North Carolina, fellows met last spring to plan their website, and over the summer they were each paid $7,500 and given travel budgets to pursue their projects. In all, the Carnegie-Knight grant is paying each News 21 institution about $250,000 per year for three years. UNC will continue developing its Powering a Nation website, adding some new content during the academic year now under way, but doing most of the new work next summer.

Wiring Together Students’ Diverse Expertise

The fellows at UNC were an eclectic group, with expertise in informational graphics, design, video storytelling, writing, editing, and marketing, said Laura Ruel, an assistant professor in visual communication and multi-media production at UNC and executive producer of Powering a Nation. While fellows worked on their own main stories for the summer, they also worked in teams, relying on and complementing one another’s strengths.

“The goal was to say, ‘What can we do if we tap these young minds?’” Ruel said.

“We wanted to learn from what’s been done and try new things … but we didn’t want to repeat what had already been done.”

The team at UNC produced 10 multi-media packages over the summer. Their stories dealt with such issues as climate refugees in Alaska; the connection between food production and the consumption of fossil fuels; biofuel research; and four American families’ experiences cutting their energy consumption.

Down The Lines” focused on challenges of modernizing the nation’s electrical grid. The package leads with a hip, fast-paced video that offers evocative scenes of the nation’s electricity infrastructure, interview clips with experts, and short factual statements that describe the challenge. Among them: “Since 1990, demand has risen 25%, while investment in transmission has fallen 30%. … Demand is expected to rise 40% in the next 20 years. … Today’s grid isn’t ready.”

‘It’s all about jobs.’ Thinking environment? ‘A fantasy’

Sara Peach, a fellow who served as the project’s editor-in-chief, traveled to Ohio to report on how coal production has shaped the economy in Meig’s County. During two visits, she gained a first-hand look at the desperation of people who rely on the coal industry for their livelihoods and who now fear losing their jobs.

Debating coal’s future” begins with a thoughtful and emotional video that alternates between the views of a former coal miner and construction worker, and a community activist who is wary of the health risks associated with coal production.

“What struck me was how frightened everyone was, just incredibly fearful because of their economic situation,” Peach said in a phone interview. “The people who support the new coal plant in Meig’s County – it’s all about the jobs for them …. For them, thinking about the environment would be a fantasy.”

Peach, who majored in environmental studies as an undergraduate at UNC and now is pursuing a career as a freelance environmental journalist, said the reporting trip to Ohio showed her how powerful reporting on people”s lives can be.

Real Fears, Real Anger … Real Video

“The really interesting thing about being a reporter is you get to talk to everybody,” Peach said. “The environmentalists and the supporters of the plant are completely isolated from each other. They never talk to each other, so I feel really privileged to be able to go and talk with everybody and really see them as human beings – and to have that sense that all that fear and anger is real.”

Very early on in the project, Peach said, it quickly became evident that the emotion and conviction of the people she interviewed would be best captured in video. When she came into the program at UNC, Peach had ambitions to be a print journalist. Now she says it’s critical that she’s broadened her horizons.

“In terms of my freelance work, about 80 percent that’s coming in for me so far is video,” she said.

“Video is really fun, and doing it has made me a better writer because if you’re making a documentary-style piece, you have to think about all the same things you would if you were immersing yourself in a narrative.”

New Multi-Media Skills Needed

Ruel, who had worked for more than 15 years as a reporter, editor, designer and manager at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Omaha World-Herald, Denver Rocky Mountain News and other outlets before entering academia full time, said she’s been inspired by the inaugural fellows at Powering a Nation.

“It’s very exciting, because I feel like we’re preparing students to lead the industry in new ways,” Ruel said. “But it’s also difficult, because [the industry is] … set up to be in silos. We’re set up to be, you know, ‘I’m a videographer,’ or ‘I’m a writer,’ ‘I work for a newspaper,’ (or) ‘I work for a TV station.’

“That’s not how our students are approaching stories at all, and it’s thrilling to see that.”

Multi-media journalism demands new skill-sets from journalists who are accustomed to only print or TV or radio. But that doesn’t mean the story-telling experience that veteran journalists have, or news judgment and journalism ethics, are no longer valued.

“The technology can be overwhelming … (but) the bottom line is that experienced people are good storytellers already, and really it’s about picking up a tool,” Ruel said.

“People who are traditionally narrative storytellers, I think there’s a level of fear – like, what’s going to happen to our narrative? Is it just going to go? The bottom line is, it’s not going to go away. It’s just going to be that when we make a choice to tell a story with a narrative, we’re going to know that’s the absolute best way to tell it.”

In coming months, Powering a Nation will debut new interactive features, including a game called “Powering Down” that will challenge users to experiment with how far they can go to cut their own personal energy consumption, Ruel said.

The site is also working on an application for Facebook that will allow users to compare their energy use.

As an evolving project, Ruel said she hopes Powering a Nation takes on a life of its own and outlasts its grant funding. “I am so proud of what they’ve done,” she said.

For a primer on multi-media journalism, a good source is multimedia.journalism.berkeley.edu.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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