PBDEs and the Promise of Depth Coverage on the Web

Here’s a hobby of mine — tracking coverage of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PBDEs, a flame retardant used widely in upholstery, plastics, etc.) by the SF Chronicle and on SFGate.com.

Backstory: For many years, the chemical has been turning up in high concentrations in marine wildlife, birds, and also humans — breast fat and milk in particular.

One of my primary gripes about the Chronicle and SFGate was that I had to resign in order to cover PBDEs. (Sour grapes, I know.)

After repeated attempts to start a dedicated public health page at SFGate were rebuffed, I finally jumped ship in March 2001, and later that May turned in some of the earliest in-depth coverage of the chemical in a major urban news outlet:

“Unsafe Bay Catch / Unregulated Pollutant PBDE A Threat To San Francisco Bay”
SFGate.com, May 11, 2001

Since then, the Chronicle has logged 30 different stories on PBDEs, including a few national-scale items, but most hearkening back to the issue of high Bay Area concentrations and California’s ban.

The persistent coverage of the issue seems mostly due to the efforts of Chron science-writing ace Jane Kay, whose latest item was in the paper on Monday:

“Chemicals threaten wildlife in San Francisco Bay, scientists say”
San Francisco Chronicle, October 1, 2007

I would like to see a deeper look at the regulatory cause-and-effect that made PBDEs such a concern in the first place. The Chron would also do well to set up a beat dedicated to chemicals and public health.

But our hometown paper is to be commended for supporting this coverage at all, and Kay deserves plenty of credit for keeping the issue in print.

What’s more, her work epitomizes the solid reportorial foundation upon and around which breakthrough Internet news media can be developed. Characteristics of this sort of coverage would include:

  • Fully leveraged hypertext for depth and context (contextual links, sidebars, and appropriate access to notes, interviews and primary sources, etc.)
  • Opportunity for readers to develop and pursue related avenues of inquiry (via social and semantic Web media, and also “Citizen Journalism”)
  • Greater interfacing between relevant data sets and native Web technologies (search engines, interactive multimedia)

These innovations will eventually emerge. But not, I fear, at the Gate, which as an enterprise is focused primarily on monetizing repurposed Chronicle material, and garnishing it with Web-exclusive lifestyle features and commentary.

Given the realities of Wall Street’s media economy, this makes sense, but it’s at the cost of the public’s unambiguous right to know.

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