A Laboratory for Better Agricultural and Environmental Journalism:
The Inaugural MU Field Reporting Institute, September 2006

Students tour farm

As they strolled across a former livestock farm in Monroe County on a sunny Saturday morning last September, University of Missouri-Columbia Agricultural Journalism and Journalism students learned what happened when owner Donald Simpson decided to restore large sections of the land to wildlife habitat.

"When farming stopped it was amazing the amount of seed there was in the soil for native plants," said Jamie Ebbesmeyer, a private land conservationist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, based in Paris.

Ebbesmeyer, with the help of Quail Unlimited biologist Lisa Potter, gave an in-depth tour of the farm, where seeds in the "soil bank" along with sowed seeds have sprung up to enhance soil conservation, water quality and wildlife habitat.

Students view map

Weeks before in an MU classroom, the students had learned about Conservation Reserve Programs, including those that provide wildlife habitat. Now they were seeing, smelling and touching the results of such programs as part of the first MU Field Reporting Institute.

The 2006 Field Reporting Institute, or FRI, was an intense, three-day trip Sept. 15-17. It formed the centerpiece of a new course on "Field Reporting in Food and Natural Resources" -- Science and Agricultural Journalism 3201.

Funded with seed money from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, the course enabled "expedition-style" learning for Science and Agricultural Journalism undergraduate students and Journalism graduate students.

Students tour farm

"We hope to offer similar courses in the future to continue to train the next generation of journalists who cover agricultural, science, the environment and natural resources," said Bill Allen, coordinator of the MU Science and Agricultural Journalism Program. "Our aim is to improve the quality of journalistic coverage of these beats in Missouri and around the nation."

Allen, assistant professor of agricultural journalism, was co-instructor of the institute along with John Schneller, assistant professor of journalism and metro editor of the Columbia Missourian.

The Fall 2006 FRI focused on the farming, transport, politics, economics and environmental impacts of corn.

Over three days, the students traveled to 13 sites from Carrollton, Mo., to Cahokia Mounds, Ill.

Students tour grain elevator

Students found themselves on the road by 7 a.m. each day, talking with a wide range of experts at farms, labs, watersheds, grain elevators, an ethanol plant, a conservation area, public water works, locks and dams and other places. By 9 p.m. they were back at their motels, typing up notes, composing story leads and discussing the day’s events.

This "immersion" experience gave them a taste of the art, science and discipline of professional-level news-gathering with an eye toward publication for a mass, non-science audience.

As the group pulled back into Columbia late Sept. 17 (a Sunday night), the students said they were exhausted but strangely energized, changed forever by the intense educational experience.

In the following weeks they wrote and revised in-depth stories about the issues they had encountered.

"We had achieved the course goals: helping students become better field reporters, interviewers and writers of complex stories about food and natural resources," Allen said. "They also gained a better understanding of the challenges and complexities of thorough, engaging explanatory journalism."

Group shot of students

The 2007 Institute will focus on agricultural, environmental and natural resource issues involving the Missouri River.

The aim is for students to experience on-the-ground and on-the-water learning about the science, politics and other aspects of the river system.

"Our long-term hope is to establish the Institute as a preeminent training ground for future generations of journalists who write about agriculture, science, the environment and conservation," Allen said.

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