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Reporting for Positive Action

by Daniel
Correspondent Daniel Zwerdling cleaned his desk and found a surprising and important story on Louisiana's vanishing wetlands.

Listeners often want to know, "Where do you get your story ideas? And how do you decide which stories to pursue?" When I look back on the stories I've done at NPR, it does seem like an eclectic mix. The story of Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who helps cattle go to a peaceful death in slaughterhouses. How an American energy company uses slave labor in Burma. "Barefoot" doctors in Eritrea. Household pesticides that poison entire families. Medical research on NASA's "vomit comet," the plane that simulates weightlessness.

And the vanishing wetlands of Louisiana.

As I think about all these stories, I remember instantly why I decided to pursue them. They surprised me. They taught me something that I never knew before. They gave me tidbits of information that helped me understand the world a little differently. And in most cases, they armed listeners (and me) with information that we could use to improve our lives at least a tiny bit. That sounds sort of pompous and grandiose, but that's always one of my main incentives: I'm always searching for stories that will give us some of the information that we need to begin taking positive action. Even the story about NASA's "weightlessness" plane met that test: it was fun to float, yes, a great adventure, but it also reminded us that we take our world for granted—and if we try to let go of the usual "rules," we can come up with new, creative solutions.

As you learn more about the vanishing wetlands in Louisiana, I bet you'll agree that this story meets all of those tests.

So I'm especially embarrassed to admit that I almost didn't do this series on the wetlands at all—because when a colleague first suggested the idea, I was feeling smug and stubborn.

In some cases, I get story ideas by seeing a phrase or sentence that strikes me in the middle of a newspaper story. For instance, I was reading a boring article about how an army base was building a bunch of new houses, and the reporter mentioned in passing that the houses were replacing some old structures that were torn down because of pesticide contamination. Hello, pesticide contamination? One thing led to another, and after NPR ran my expose on the pesticide called Chlordane, the manufacturer took it off the market.

Sometimes I get ideas by wandering through stores, and wondering, "Well, where did THAT product come from?" That's how I decided to investigate the boom in antibacterial household soaps some years ago—which led to one of the first national stories revealing that they're useless and possibly dangerous.

And sometimes listeners call and say, "Hey, I thought you might be interested in a problem we have in our community ... "

Back to the wetlands. About a year ago, my colleague (and ARW producer/editor) Deb George went to a dinner party, and happened to chat with a freelance writer who told her enthusiastically about his recent project. He had written a piece for the Washington Post travel section on the bayous of Louisiana, and the shrimpers he met showed him how their world is literally crumbling. The writer, Mike Tidwell, told Deb that it was a shocking story which almost nobody outside Louisiana knew about, and he graciously said, "You folks at American RadioWorks should look into it, you'd have the time and resources to cover the story right." He gave Deb a copy of his article, and she asked me if I wanted to take a look.

Tidwell's article was a lovely, graceful piece of travel writing, but the moment I saw the words "wetlands," I
The Secrets of the Bayou
By Mike Tidwell
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 22, 1999
tossed it aside. I've spent a lot of my career writing about environmental issues, but there's something about the word "wetlands" that makes me want to go to sleep. And "habitat." And "biomass." And "resource allocation" and "infrastructure." I know these words are all about important topics, but there's something about them that makes me picture self-righteous environmentalists and boring public officials. Plus, I figured I've heard so many stories about wetlands that there's nothing that listeners and I don't already know.

So I forgot about Louisiana.

Fortunately, I decided to clean my desk earlier this year. When I unearthed Tidwell's article near the bottom of the pile of clippings and photocopies and old magazines, I started skimming it before throwing it in the trash. And as I read, I was amazed. I was shocked. Astonished. Why did I react differently on this particular morning than I did a year before? Maybe it was the cup of coffee I had just drunk. Maybe it was hormones. Who knows, but this time I realized that Tidwell was on to a surprising and important story, and he had been incredibly generous to offer to help us pursue it. My colleagues at ARW and NPR agreed, and within a couple months, I was buzzing over the wetlands in a helicopter.

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