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Lake Mead stories reveal reporting chasm

Yo, what’d ya know? What’d ya not know?

Answers, in order: A lot, and a lot.

Comparing differing approaches to stories can be instructive in identifying what viewers rightly resent about TV news, and what they should appreciate more. Today’s instructors: KTNV-TV, Channel 13 and KLAS-TV, Channel 8. Today’s topic: last week’s reporting on diminishing Lake Mead water levels.

Jumping off a new survey revealing they’ve receded 15 feet over the past five months — a serious issue, to be sure — Channel 13 employed language suggesting an impending aquatic apocalypse: "water worries," "the clock may be ticking on Lake Mead," "the situation is just getting worse at Lake Mead," "the water level is still dropping," "many are concerned we’re going to run out" and "what does this mean for the future?"

Quite a run-up to a story that took 35 seconds to tell us not much at all. Beyond brow-furrowing pronouncements was a quote from J.C. Davis of the Southern Nevada Water Authority: "We maintain a 50-year water resource plan. We look out decades in advance and say, ‘OK, if the Colorado River isn’t going to be reliable, where are we going to get water supplies to meet this community’s needs?’ "

That "where" would be … where? No follow-up was forthcoming — especially on the water authority’s specific plan now being executed — though anchor Lisa Remillard did note that the agency "does have the option to boost Lake Mead’s levels by releasing water from Lake Powell." Later, a 90-second update by reporter Ashlee DeMartino added the Bureau of Reclamation’s upbeat Colleen Dwyer concluding that "we’ll still have a little bit of a drop but by next year we’ll actually see higher levels than we’ve seen this past year." That’s because … why?

Conclusion: Bad things might happen, but maybe they won’t. Somehow.

Conversely, though not immune to dramatic setups — anchor Denise Valdez declaring "80 feet of water in Lake Mead is all that separates Las Vegas from a very thirsty future" — Channel 8’s coverage was an informative Nathan Baca report on the ambitious "third straw" engineering project to deliver more water to Las Vegas.

Touring the construction site, Baca’s two-minute, detail-packed story recalled July’s drilling delay as an underground chamber filled with water, explained how geothermal heating complicates the task for workers, reported that a 1,500-ton drill would eventually move forward 30 feet a day to create a three-mile-long tunnel, and also quoted Davis’ optimistic assessment, but at least with specifics: The project remains slated for completion in 2013 and our water usage is fortunately trending downward, Las Vegas using 26 billion gallons less last year than in 2002 while adding 400,000 residents during that span.

One story, two approaches. One taught us, one teased us. One relied on explanations, one on exclamations.

Grand-scale, Emmy-bait journalism — Channel 8’s I-Team investigations, Channel 13’s "Contact 13" reports — can gussy up a station in king’s clothing. Yet it’s the peasant stories — those never to land before a contest judge’s eyes — that are the muscle, sinew and backbone of a news outfit. Those done knowing some stories can skate by on minimum effort.

Then applying the max.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

 

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